Over a VOIP call from her offices at Rutgers University in the United States, Audrey Truschke, South Asia historian, speaks about her latest book, Aurangzeb: The man and the myth, her personal interest in South Asian history, and why she continues to persist with social media engagement.
Hi Audrey. Thank you for taking the time to speak with Mint on Sunday. For readers who may not be aware of your work, can you tell us a little bit about what you do, where you work and so on?
I am an assistant professor of South Asian history at Rutgers University, a state university, in New Jersey. I live in New Jersey, about 10 miles from the university.
In terms of my job at Rutgers... I’m at the Newark campus. I am the only South Asian historian at that particular campus, and my job is pretty broad. I am responsible for teaching the entirety of South Asian history. We allow quite a bit of freedom in the United States academy, so it’s really up to me how to best proceed with that monumental task.
I choose to teach all of South Asian history, going back nearly 5,000 years. I teach a historical overview course every year over two semesters. We start from the Indus Valley civilization, and by the end, we go all the way into the current year. This spring, we ended in 2017 with Yogi Adityanath’s recent election. Next spring, it will be different. Who knows what will be going on by May 2018 in India.
Rutgers-Newark is an exciting place for someone who works on South Asia due to immense interest from the students. A high percentage of my students are of South Asian descent, often first or second generation immigrants to America. Their families come from India, Pakistan or some other nearby region, but they have gone through an American school system, which teaches basically nothing about India. It is rewarding to be able to provide them with knowledge about Indian history and give them the tools to analyse the past.
That is a very broad canvas. How do you stay on top of stuff?
It is both a challenge and a delight for me. I am aided in being able to teach roughly four to five thousand years of South Asian history by my diverse language training as well as my broad training in terms of historical periods.
Being both a Sanskritist and a Persianist is rather helpful here. Through my Sanskrit training, I have a certain amount of knowledge regarding the development of Hinduism over time, including the Vedic period, the composition of the epics, and so forth. Then through my emphasis on Persian, I am pretty good with the Indo-Islamic period.
There are chunks of time and certain topics that I teach in the historical overview course on South Asia on which I am far from being an expert. In other words, there are things that I teach because it is part of the job rather than a central research interest on my part, and that’s fine. In terms of how I keep up on the vast range of excellent research on South Asian history: I read. This is a core thing that academics do when we are not teaching or sitting on committees: we sit and read articles and books.
Is there an element, in your teaching, of making students unlearn before they relearn elements of Indian history?
Yes, but this is tricky for a couple of reasons. One is I have students coming in with vastly different levels of knowledge. I have students walk into my classroom who literally cannot pinpoint India on a map. One of the first things I do is give a map quiz.
Then I have students who have gone through some level of education in India and others whose families or cultural contexts have provided some type of background information about certain topics. There is a broad range in terms of the reliability of the preconceived ideas of such students. I find that, in general, the students I get at Rutgers-Newark are pretty hungry for real history and quite open to reconsidering their views in light of historical evidence and argumentation.
Of course, as a professor, I do not walk into a classroom and tell people, “Oh, forget everything you’ve ever heard. I am telling the only true story.” That is not how the academy works. I tell them, “Look, there are certain ideas in the world about Indian history. Some of those ideas are better than others. Some of those ideas have political reasons behind them, whereas others are backed by historical evidence and reasoning.”
I teach my students overtly about the politics of Indian history and why, say, it matters so much to some people in 2017 to undermine the Aryan migration theory (a theory that is backed by substantial evidence). I want them to appreciate the modern political stakes, but I also want my students to carefully distinguish between political versus historical reasons for endorsing a particular vision of the past. Political leanings are never a good reason to believe in anything, historically speaking. I try to arm my students with the tools they need in order to formulate their own opinions about history on the basis of historical evidence.
How did you get into South Asian history? Also, how does somebody become both a Sanskritist and a Persianist at the same time? One of those things sounds hard enough...
I did not enter into this field with a master plan that included learning both Sanskrit and Persian. I started learning Sanskrit as an undergraduate. I needed a language at the time, and I wanted to learn an ancient language. In the end, it came down to ancient Greek or Sanskrit, and a lot more people learn Greek than Sanskrit, so I thought, why not take the road less travelled. I quickly fell in love with Sanskrit, with the language, with its beauty and, above all, with classical Sanskrit texts.
I studied four years of Sanskrit as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. Towards the end of my time there, I grew slightly dissatisfied with the limitations of my Sanskrit training up until that point and my own focus on ancient Sanskrit texts. So, I thought, why not learn another South Asian language that would ground me in a more recent historical period, such as Indo-Islamic rule, and so I started studying Persian in my last year as an undergraduate.
It was really only after learning a bit of Persian that I realized what I could do by pairing Sanskrit and Persian. In other words, I fell into a gold mine. Once I realized what I could research with knowledge of both Sanskrit and Persian, I thought, “Hey, why not go to graduate school and see I we can make a career out of this and do something interesting.”
What did you research on at the master’s and the postgraduate level?
For my master’s and PhD degrees, I conducted research on Sanskrit literature and Sanskrit literary cultures in the Mughal Empire that eventually led to my first book, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court, published by Columbia University Press and Penguin India. This project enabled me to bring together my language skills in both Sanskrit and Persian. It also drew upon my interest in different academic disciplines and methodologies. As a graduate student, I was largely trained as what we used to call a philologist, somebody who reads texts, not as a historian. Over the last several years I have transitioned into a more historical mode of research. My first book’s emphasis on literary cultures comes out of my philology background, but then the emphasis on the Mughals and imperial culture allowed me to bring in history in a robust, concrete way.
One very common domestic Indian critique of foreign historical scholarship that it is not philological enough. That it is not based on enough primary scholarship of the sources in the original languages...
I do not think that criticism holds much water. Philology as a term is very out of fashion in the West. Never use that term on the job market. But I think we still do a lot of philology and many scholars emphasize work on primary sources in their original languages.
In many ways, I am a historian now. I teach in a history department, for example. My most recent book on Aurangzeb is quite clearly a historical, rather than a philological, work. Nonetheless, I hope that my philological training still comes through in my scholarship and enables me to read texts with nuance and texture that helps us better grasp both individual texts and what they can tell us about the past.
I think this shows in your Aurangzeb book. Especially in that section on the end. The postscript note on historiographical sources.
I showed that postscript to various colleagues before I published it as part of the book. The most common response to it was: “Why are you bothering to include this? It’s so obvious and boilerplate.” I responded by pointing out that while the bare bones of historical method are obvious, even banal, to historians—people who study the past for a living—they are not obvious to anyone else.
There is a widening gap between specialists who work on Mughal history, or any other aspect of Indian history, and an Indian public that is interested in history. I think it important that specialists try to explain how we attempt to understand the past and how to read texts, namely the tools of our trade, to interested readers.
Why is that gap growing between historians and their broader audiences? Is it a political thing or are there other factors?
I think it is largely a political thing. Look at the amount of abuse that I receive on a nearly daily basis by being a fairly public intellectual who is on social media and has published a popular book. I am not being challenged on historical or evidentiary grounds but rather by those with a specific political agenda in modern India.
A lot of academics don’t think that these sorts of political debates are worth having. I have colleagues who will ask me, often quite sincerely baffled, “Audrey, why do you persist on Twitter?” I have colleagues who have been surprised that I have published my books in India at all. An increasingly popular choice among some scholars is simply not to publish books in India in order to avoid political backlash.
In my colleagues’ defence, what I experience is not pleasant. I am often attacked on deeply personal levels using sexist and racialized language. I sometimes argue to my colleagues that, “Hey, maybe more of us should speak to a popular audience,” but some of them resist and respond, “Well, look at what’s happened to you.”
Audrey, why do you do it?
Oh, because I think it’s worth it.
I have a thick skin by nature. Some of the attacks do not bother me in the way that they would eat away at many people. But I do not persist for the trolls and those consumed by hate. Those that call me a colonialist or accuse me of being part of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world are never going to be convinced by scholarly arguments. I persist for those more receptive to history. I think that there is a real hunger and a thirst for more serious history in India today.
As Hindu nationalism grows stronger and stronger in India, and as their agenda to make Indians ignorant about their own history continues, that only increases the appetite that many people have to gain a better sense of what actually happened in the past. People want to be able to think for themselves about history. To me, that is an exciting project to which I have something to contribute.
Maybe it helps to explain that I live in the United States of America, in a place where I am met with a totally blank stare when I tell people that I work on Mughal history. Nobody here knows who the Mughals are. To me, it is exciting that Indians know something about the Mughal Empire. I hope that I can help interested readers learn and care about the Mughals in ways other than just renaming roads after them.
Do you think historians need that kind of thick skin? Is it now a necessary part of their repertoire?
In order to be an academic, you have to have a thick skin in terms of attacks on your ideas. Academics can be a vicious lot when it comes to assessing one other’s arguments. Academic book reviews, for example, if you can get past their customary dryness, are often brutal.
But, in an ideal world, scholars should not have to tolerate personal attacks on their identity, family, and so forth. It is specifically these sorts of ad hominem attacks that I condemn when I talk about hate speech and hateful attacks against me.
Insofar as the attacks are merely on the level of ideas, “Audrey, I think you misread this particular text. I think this point is wrong for X, Y, and Z reasons,” that is all fair game. I wish I received more of those scholarly attacks and fewer messages filled with bigotry.
I finished reading your recent book on Aurangzeb a few days ago. One thing I liked about it is despite the tone of conversation you have on Twitter and the kind of abuse we just spoke about, it’s actually a very happy book in the sense that it’s not a book that seeks to grind knives or settle the score with anything. It’s a very well-written and reasonably careful look at the life of Aurangzeb, if those are the right ways to describe it.
What I want to know is... You said something in the book, which I thought was really interesting. That Aurangzeb is perhaps one of the best sources of Mughal history. In the sense that his reign has left us with some of the best documentary sources.
Broadly speaking, how do we know what we know about Aurangzeb? What are the sources? What are the sources you use?
Aurangzeb’s reign is incredibly well documented in the sense that we have a lot of sources about his life and rule. Our access to those documents is the problem. Your average person who can’t read Mughal Persian texts has more access to Akbar’s reign than Aurangzeb’s reign, largely by virtue of what has been translated.
For sources for Aurangzeb’s reign, we have written texts and material sources. I work with material sources, including buildings, illustrations, images, coins, and so forth. The bulk of my sources, however, are written texts, including histories, letters, reports from the courts, foreign travel accounts, and things like that. We have an incredible amount of material on the nearly fifty-year reign of Aurangzeb Alamgir.
The location of some of these materials is a challenge. Source on Aurangzeb’s reign—like sources on all Mughal kings—are scattered. A lot of texts remain in India, only available in manuscript format, and within India, the manuscripts are housed at many different archives. There are relevant documents in Kolkata, Delhi, Aligarh, so on and so forth. A certain number of manuscripts are available in Europe and even bits and pieces in the United States.
Getting access to some of these manuscripts can be difficult. Not all archives are welcoming of all scholars, so one often has to negotiate. Not to mention you have to physically get to the archive first and have time to sit wherever you are. Of course, many histories from Aurangzeb’s period are published. When we have a published edition, that is obviously easier for scholars to access, although the quality of the editing varies considerably.
A lot of material from Aurangzeb’s reign remains unpublished, particularly what are known as the akhbarat, the news reports from Aurangzeb’s court. If you can sit in Kolkata for months and months and read them, you are golden, but that is not a realistic option for everyone.
In terms of the reliability of sources, that all depends on what you want to know. There is no such thing as objectivity. Historians have not believed in complete objectivity for over half-a-century, at least. Some of the key starting questions are: What is the viewpoint of a given source? How does that viewpoint relate to what I, as the historian, want to know?
For example, if I am reading a premodern chronicler of Aurangzeb’s reign that I know is heavily into a fierce ideology about Islam dominating other religious traditions and I want to know about temple destructions, then I might want to take what that source says with a grain of salt and read it through the lens of the author’s own bias.
On the other hand, if I am reading the same source and I want to know who Aurangzeb’s second daughter married in the 1670s, then I might judge the chronicler in question quite reliable.
This is where people sometimes get a bit upset and feel that historians are distorting the past, but I would argue quite the opposite. The goal is to accurately reconstruct the past to the extent possible given the available sources. Sometimes the goal is also to understand why certain authors wrote as they did, complete with mistruths and biases.
One crucial error that non-experts make all the time and that I would caution against for anybody who works on or thinks about Mughal history is to take a source at its word. There are moments when historical sources tell you accurately about certain basic facts of the past, but before concluding that one has found such an instance, you have to analyse the given source.
You have to think about the author’s agenda, the genre of the text, and numerous other factors. This is all part of historical method and reading the nuances and textures of a given work.
Why is Aurangzeb particularly controversial? Particularly prone to arguments and disagreements? Is it because there are so many sources that lead to some different interpretations?
I don’t think that Aurangzeb is controversial because he is well sourced. As I said, his life and reign are well documented, but most of those sources are not accessible to non-experts. Many are not even accessible to experts.
Why is Aurangzeb so controversial? I will give two reasons. One, the British. When the British came to India and began the colonial project, going all the way back to the East India Company days, they had to sell Indians on a brutal idea, namely that a small group of foreigners ought to be allowed to do things such as take wealth out of India and cause massive famines. How can you justify such an enterprise to the Indian people?
The British came up with a whole lot of answers to that hard question, but one answer was to say, “Well, we are better than the guys who came before us.” Their predecessors were the Mughals. Going all the way back to the late 17th century, we have British documents that talk about the Mughals in general and they seize upon Aurangzeb in particular as, in their view, an especially egregious ruler. The British had a vested interest in making Aurangzeb out to be the worst-case scenario possible, so that they, the British, would look good by comparison.
The second reason I would name, and this is part of why the British chose Aurangzeb for this un-illustrious role of India’s worst ruler, is there are certain aspects of Aurangzeb’s reign that, especially through modern ways of thinking, can be fit fairly easily into a negative portrayal.
It is true, for example, so far as I can tell, that Aurangzeb was more pious than any prior Mughal king. He appears to have prayed more regularly. He took a hardline stance on certain aspects of Islam. When you combine that with modern anti-Muslim prejudices, which are widespread in India and around the world today, one gets a narrative of India’s most abhorrent king.
Additionally, the Mughal Empire fell apart shortly after Aurangzeb’s reign ended. If you are looking for a scapegoat for that event, Aurangzeb is the most obvious choice. Whether that is accurate or not is another question, but it is easy to uncritically slot Aurangzeb into the role of the big bad failure of the Mughal regime.
I must admit that I have always been under the impression that Aurangzeb’s reign was the tipping point for the Mughal Empire. And that this was because of his intransigence to non-Muslims. You say that this is not the case in your book. Could you kind of explain that a bit, especially for people who have not read the book?
If I understand the popular argument here, it goes as follows: “Aurangzeb oppressed Hindus and made their lives difficult. Some people even say he committed a genocide against Hindus. This destroyed the foundation of the Mughal Empire. Villainizing and killing huge numbers of the majority of people over which you rule generally does not bode well for imperial success.”
I think that this storyline is false because the evidence suggests something rather different, both in terms of the facts and causality. Factually, Aurangzeb did not commit a genocide of Hindus. He killed plenty of people, which was not unusual in Mughal India, but he did not target Hindus on a religious basis.
We also have evidence that the plight of at least some Hindus actually improved under Aurangzeb’s rule. For example, Aurangzeb employed more Hindus in the Mughal administration than any prior Mughal ruler by a significant margin. He increased the Hindu share in the Mughal nobility by 50%. That’s pretty substantial.
In brief, Aurangzeb’s reign was not especially disastrous for Hindus. For some Hindu communities, Aurangzeb’s rule was rather beneficial.
I leave open the possibility in the book that Aurangzeb may bear some responsibility for the fall of the Mughal Empire for other reasons. I decline to issue an opinion in the book, for example, on the theory that the Deccan Wars in the last two or three decades of Aurangzeb’s life stretched Mughal imperial resources too thin and made the entire imperial apparatus prone to shattering. I do not feel that I have enough evidence to date on which to adjudicate the validity of this argument, and so I chose not to comment further. This is what good historians do: we go as far as the evidence can take us, but no further.
By way of contextualizing this issue a bit more, I would point out that there are two levels of questions here, and this is part of why the debate over whether Aurangzeb destroyed the Mughal Empire is so muddled.
The first level of questioning, the meta level, is: What causes the fall of an empire? Can one man, even an emperor, even a very powerful emperor, really bring down an empire? Or should we be looking for more structural causes, such as economic shifts and social changes that are bigger than any single king? There is no consensus on this broad issue of causality, as far as I am aware.
The second level of questioning concerns the Mughals in particular: Was Aurangzeb responsible for the decline of Mughal power, or was somebody or something else? Maybe it was Shah Jahan, for example? Maybe it goes all the back to Akbar, who set up the empire for failure from the start? Or maybe Aurangzeb’s descendants are to blame?
In short, there are several levels of questions to be answered before we can fruitfully address—much less hypothesize about—the level of responsibility to assign to Aurangzeb for the fall of the Mughal dynasty.
Before we divert away from Aurangzeb a bit, I want to touch upon your references to British sources in the book. You mention that British sources sought to villainize Aurangzeb. That many of these sources are poor. One area in which they are less than credible, you say, has to deal with the idea of temple demolitions. Which are these British sources? I ask you just so that anyone who reads this can keep this in mind when they go back and look at sources and arguments and discussions in your book.
There are a wide variety of problematic colonial-era sources, some written by Europeans and others by Indians. Jadunath Sarkar’s scholarship, for example, is valuable in many ways, but advances views on Aurangzeb that I reject today and that I think reflect British propaganda to some degree. For people who look into such sources, I would say a couple of things.
Always think about the context in which people are writing. Though, you do not want to go too far with this line of thinking. It is an error to take any given thinker, especially a serious thinker, and say, “Well, they are just saying that because they were writing in 1930 in British India.”
You want to see nuance in the writings of scholars and take their ideas seriously, but you also want to consider their contexts, biases, and what people may have gotten out of making certain points. History is an evidentiary-based discipline to a great degree, but it also rests on arguments made by individuals, and nobody stands completely free of their own historical context.
If someone makes an argument, we should query their evidence and logic. Ask: What is the basis for this idea? Is this the best interpretation of this action or event given the available historical evidence? Has this scholar accurately represented the evidence? How is this particular interpretation helping me understand the past?
While interrogating sources and scholars, readers are also well advised to try to see their own potential biases and blinders in the context of 2017. As I said, nobody stands completely free of their own historical context.
The next question I think is actually a very good one for you to answer, given the breadth of Indian history you teach. And that is many people, for good or bad reasons, feel that the Mughals have tended to play an oversized role in Indian history and Indian history textbooks and school textbooks.
My question is in two parts. One, do you think this is right? Two, if you were to look at the non-Mughal aspects of Indian history around that period and just before, are there enough historiographical sources to write interesting things about them?
It is hard for me to comment on this generally. Is there any specific textbook in current use in India that overemphasizes the Mughals and should possibly cut some mentions of the Mughals and talk more about the Rajputs? Maybe. I don’t know. There are a lot of different textbooks in India. I would say in general, from what I have seen and read, this is not a huge concern. The Mughals were the really big game in town for a couple of hundred years. The Hindu nationalists can kick and scream about that as much as they like, but it is not going to change that basic reality. It is reasonable to give the Mughals a fair amount of airtime in Indian history books.
Now, of course, Mughal history should not be presented at the total expense of other contemporary historical trends and topics. Sikh history, for instance, is a fascinating topic. There are a number of historians that focus on Sikh studies. We even have a couple of chairs in the US and Canada specifically in Sikh studies. There are people who work on Maratha history, an important aspect of early modern India. There are a number of people who work on Rajput history, which intersects with Mughal history.
There are historical sources for all of these aspects of early modern South Asia and more. In many cases, those historical sources overlap with my own. There is no serious historian of Shivaji that does not use Mughal sources, for example.
Unfortunately, I think that we are starting to see more radical rewritings of Indian textbooks that treat Mughal history in rather absurd ways. For instance, Maharashtrian textbooks have reduced the space given to Akbar to three measly lines; a Rajasthan textbook has misreported the outcome of the Battle of Haldighati. These sorts of things are patently ridiculous.
Basically, politicians are robbing Indian students of any chance of understanding the past, or the present for that matter. Much about present-day India—ranging from major monuments to why the currency is called the rupee—is inexplicable if you do not know the basics of Mughal history.
What is the point of teaching about Indian history in schools? If the point is just to teach politically current propaganda, that is not history at all. That is the equivalent of taking kids to a political rally. The point of history is to learn about the past, to learn about who one’s ancestors were, how people used to live, and why things are the way they are now. For all of those projects, in an Indian context, the Mughals are central.
Very well put. Now tell me how your field has changed over the years. Has it changed much? I ask from two perspectives. The first one is, are people approaching South Asian history from new perspectives? Is there anything like that happening? Secondly, in terms of sources. Do you have new sources to work with?
Yes, the field has changed quite a bit and continues to evolve. In terms of new perspectives, there are a couple of major trends going on right now. One has to do with global history and putting India in a wider context, whether that is the Indian Ocean world, links with Central Asia, or the like. Scholars such as Sanjay Subrahmanyam and Azfar Moin have made major contributions to this line of inquiry.
Another trend that we are seeing is to view specific communities as having fuzzy boundaries and even overlapping with one another. At an earlier point in time, scholars operated with the old colonial idea that there was a Hindu India and a Muslim India, Hindu history and Muslim history.
Now, people have broken down those barriers and emphasize shared spaces, links between specific Hindu and Muslim communities, and the value of using non-religious categories in specific instances. Scholars such as Allison Busch, Cynthia Talbot, and many others have made crucial interventions in this regard.
In terms of new sources, yes these exist in a few different ways. Sometimes we find previously unknown texts, such as the Majalis-i Jahangiri. Other times, scholars draw upon sources that have been neglected for so long that people have nearly forgotten they exist. For instance, I have brought significant Sanskrit materials to bear on Indo-Islamic history. These Sanskrit sources, especially Jain-authored materials, offer perspectives on the Mughals that we do not find in Persian-language sources.
The language barrier remains a big challenge for many scholars, however. Even if I convince my fellow Mughal historians that Sanskrit texts are essential, I cannot change the fact that most of them do not know Sanskrit and so are limited to accessing Sanskrit materials through scholarship produced by me and a couple of other people.
The multilingual landscape of South Asia, at least for me, has always been one of the challenges and the joys of the field. On the one hand, it is incredible. There are few places in the world that approach anything like India’s linguistic diversity, which make Indian history particularly fascinating in many ways. On the other hand, there are only so many languages that one can learn. The vast majority of texts remain untranslated for practical reasons, and so language abilities limit how much any single scholar can access.
Is enough happening in South Asia to bridge this gap? Do you see Indian historians, multilingual historians I mean, working on this?
In many regards, language training in premodern languages is weakening, not strengthening, right now in India. The Indian state has put pretty limited resources into such endeavors.
The state seems to have no problem paying for every school child to learn basic Sanskrit and be able to recite some shlokas from the Ramayana. In terms of actually training people to read, say, premodern Kannada, I think we are nearly down to single digits of capable individuals in South Asia. In the West, we have our own issues, including a lack of interest, reduced funding, so on and so forth.
We should try to end on positive notes. What are you working on right now? What’s your next exciting new book?
I am excited to be working on my third book. Book number three is on Sanskrit literary histories of Indo-Islamic incursions and rule. I have identified a series of Sanskrit texts, dating the late 12th century until the early 18th century, that address the advent and growth of Islamic rule in India. Basically, from the earliest moments when Islamic figures who would become Indo-Islamic figures start to move into South Asia, Sanskrit intellectuals wrote about the accompanying social and political shifts. I am going to trace this largely unrecognized Sanskrit tradition of historical writing that continues for about 500 years, roughly half-a-millennium.
The idea here is I want to kill two birds with one stone. One, I want to put to rest once and for all the tired but still prominent idea that Sanskrit has no written history. This is an old Orientalist idea you hear all the time still: Sanskrit intellectuals wrote great literature and poetry but no history.
I think that is false. There are a bunch of Sanskrit texts that I think are pretty identifiably historical in their tone. These works are found in various genres, but they exist, and focusing on texts that detail the Indo-Islamic past is one way to excavate a crucial part of the Sanskrit tradition of historical writing.
The second myth that I want to put to rest is, again, an old Orientalist idea, namely that Sanskrit writers had nothing to say about Islam. Sanskrit writers did not write about Islamic theology in much depth, but they wrote about Muslims a lot: Muslim conquerors, Muslim rulers, Muslim courts, and so forth. I want to access and outline the ideas of specific Sanskrit thinkers on the major cultural, social, and political changes associated with Indo-Islamic rule.
At the root of this book project is the, I think, relatively non-controversial postulation that the movement of Islamic peoples into South Asia and the establishment and ongoing reality of Indo-Islamic rule for several hundred years constituted one of the single biggest historical shifts of the second millennium in South Asian history. The only serious contender for a more seismic shift would be British colonialism.
I want to know how and what India’s traditional elite, Sanskrit intellectuals, thought about the changes initiated by Indo-Islamic rule as they lived through them.
What advice would you give a young Indian historian regarding how to work, how to think, how to deal with criticism, how to develop a thick skin? Anything. Top three things for the young historian to keep in mind?
Top three things. Focus on the questions, your questions. What do you want to know about the past? The starting point of good historical research is formulating good questions. For that, you really need to check out a little bit from the popular sphere, because few people in the popular sphere are asking questions likely to render worthwhile insights regarding the past.
A second key point is to read very widely, both primary and secondary sources. Do not fall for this trap you sometimes hear today that all the secondary scholarship is biased and you should just get back to the primary sources. That’s ridiculous. Read the secondary work. Even read the people you do not like. Read everybody, and read the primary sources, in their original languages if possible.
My third piece of advice: enjoy it. One thing that allows me to soldier on despite severe criticism is that I really love and care about Indian history. That is hard, I think, for a lot of people to understand. Why would some random person from America fall in love with the Mughal past? Why would they get so excited thinking about what made Jahangir tick or why Aurangzeb won the war of succession rather than Dara Shukoh?
For me, it is an intellectual love and perhaps that serves as a shield. It can be painful for me to see people taking something that I care so deeply about and making it into a blunt political weapon. But I try to set that aside and draw strength from my own excitement about what I study and the opportunity to share that passion with interested readers.
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