over the appointment of the Sanskrit scholar, Firoze Khan, to a teaching
position at the Banaras Hindu University has raged on for over three weeks. It
now looks as though the protestors are winning and that Khan may be appointed
at the faculty of Ayurveda instead of teaching literature at the Sanskrit Vidya
Dharma Vigyan faculty.
relentless attacks on Khan call to mind a very different era in Benares over
three-and-a-half centuries ago. In early 1657, a group of Brahmin Pandits
travelled from Benares to Delhi so that they could join a Muslim prince in his
spiritual quest. Prince Dara Shikoh had been interested in Indic religious
thought for a while, but he had recently discovered a group of sacred texts —
the Upanishads — that he felt were perfect expressions of God’s oneness.
Moreover, he also believed they held the key to understanding the Quran’s
secrets. He wanted to work with some Sanskrit scholars to decipher and
understand them so that he could produce a Persian translation.
not have to go far to find help. For several years, he and his father, the
emperor Shah Jahan, had played host to Kavindracharya Saraswati, a prominent
pandit from Benares. This kind of relationship wasn’t unheard of at the time.
Shah Jahan’s court was only continuing a longer Mughal tradition of hosting
Hindu religious scholars. Still, there was something special about
Kavindracharya’s closeness to the imperial family.
chronicles don’t tell us how exactly the prince drew on the pandit’s knowledge,
or what Kavindracharya’s precise role at the court was. This is what we do
know, though: Between the years 1651 and 1657, Shah Jahan lavished
Kavindracharya with valuable rewards, on more than a dozen occasions.
composed verse extolling Shah Jahan’s learning. Through his poetry,
Kavindracharya also instructed the imperial family in Vedanta and other schools
of Indic philosophy. He lauded the emperor’s daughter, Jahan Ara, and her
brother, Murad Bakhsh. And, of course, he praised the emperor’s eldest son Dara
was held in high esteem by his fellow Brahmin scholars in Benares. So when Dara
wished to study the Upanishads, Kavindracharya would have been a natural
facilitator. The prince worked for several months with his pandit
interlocutors. He named his Upanishad translation Sirr-i Akbar or the “Greatest
Dara was forced to spend the last anguished months of his life as a fugitive
from Aurangzeb’s men. Once captured, he reportedly tried to defend himself with
all he had left — a knife used for sharpening pens. Two years after he
completed the Sirr-i akbar, his pen was silenced forever.
need to glorify Dara Shikoh to learn from his story. He was a prince hoping to
become a powerful sovereign, not a modern-day social reformer or a
democratically-elected leader. But the Sirr-i Akbar is only one example among
many of how the histories of Sanskrit are closely entwined with Persian and
Urdu, and the histories of Hindus with those of Muslims.
the Sirr-i Akbar had an afterlife that Dara could never have imagined. We often
hear that Europeans first encountered the Upanishads through their Latin
translations. But we have forgotten about the numerous Hindus who also read the
Sirr-i akbar as a way of accessing their own sacred texts.
age of print, many educated Hindus read Persian — Kayasths, Khatris and
Brahmins among them. Persian had a status somewhat like English does today.
Just as some Indians now read English translations of the Gita or the
Upanishads, many of their counterparts in the past would have read these works
in Persian. Dara’s Persian translation opened the Upanishads to non-Brahmins
who may not have had the opportunity to develop a mastery of Sanskrit. Take,
for instance, the 19th century reformer Kanhaiyalal Alakhdhari. He produced an
Urdu translation of the Persian Sirr-i akbar, which enjoyed several printings.
Alakhdhari was not very favourably inclined towards Islam or Muslims, but he
felt indebted to Dara Shukoh’s Sirr-i akbar, which had helped him access the
Upanishads in his own project of Hindu reform and revival.
Shukoh’s Upanishad translation was a monumental project with lasting
significance for both Hindus and Muslims. But today it has also become a
reminder of religious nationalism’s impossible logic. Certain luminaries of the
ruling dispensation hold seminars on Dara Shikoh.
Indian Muslims of admiring Aurangzeb, and ask them to look up to Dara as a
model instead. But when a Muslim scholar like Firoze Khan does just that by
pursuing a career in Sanskrit studies, he is hounded. Members of the RSS have
spoken in favour of Khan’s original appointment to the Sanskrit Vidya Dharma
Vigyan faculty of BHU. Yet, for now, the forces that their ideology unleashed
of Sanskrit is linked with the fate of the humanities. It will flourish and
grow when the study of all languages and literatures can thrive, in
universities that nurture academic freedom and attract a diverse student body.
This is a vision too terrifying to behold for the self-styled protectors of
ideological projects, neo-liberal Hindutva seeks its own coherence. Yet, in it
dwell numerous contradictions. At once it promotes Sanskrit as a pan-Indian
ideal for all, but then punishes Muslims for advancing too far in it. It seeks
the prestige of science and learning while hollowing out stellar public
contradictions proceed through a triumphalism that has little space for
difference or dissent, let alone our common histories that have Hindus reading
Persian, or Muslims studying Sanskrit.
Gandhi teaches at Yale University and is the author of the forthcoming book The
Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India.
Headline: A Mughal prince and the pandits of Benares
Source: The Indian Express