By Maqbool Ahmed Siraj
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ramayana was translated into Persian at the behest of emperor Akbar. Long after Akbar, the Mughal court continued the tradition of cultural blending.
Hindus and Muslims did not live like frozen cubes all through the span of 650 years of Muslim rule in India. Lively intercourse pervaded all sectors of existence, social, political, intellectual and cultural.
The protagonists of cultural nationalism today make out a case for purging the national life of any traces of composite culture that developed in the Indo-Gangetic plains during the 650 years of Muslim rule. This has necessitated them to fabricate a history of cultural suppression of Hindus in the medieval India. Alongside has emerged a project to project a homogenized Hindu cultural identity by underplaying the fissures and contradictions within them and ignoring the cultural variety.
A closer examination of the history reveals that Muslim developed a profound cultural understanding of Indian ethos, customs, mythology and literature inasmuch as Ramayana became the most translated book in Islamic languages like Arabic, Persian and Urdu.
It is hard to share the sense of amazement of some non-Muslims when they hear that Ramayana was translated into Persian at the behest of emperor Akbar. Ramayana is not the only book that was transferred to Persian. Akbar ordered several of Sanskrit classics to be translated. A committee of scholars with cross-lingual expertise had been constituted by the Mughal court to oversee important translation assignments. Bearded maulvis trained in Sanskrit engaged in discourse with saffron robed Persian scholars. It included worthies such as Naqeeb Khan, Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, Mulla Sheri and Sultan Haji Thanesari. It rendered Mahabharath into Persian and titled it Razm Namah (literally the Saga of theBatlefield). The royal ateliers were directed to illustrate and gild its pages. Ramayana was translated by Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni a year later. Atharva Veda was translated by Haji Ibrahim Sirhindi. Translation of Lord Krishna’s biography, Harbans was undertaken by Mullah Sheri. Badayuni took up the task of Singhasan Batisi into Persian and titled it Khurd Afza in Persian. The famous Sanskrit treatise Rajataringini by Kalhana was translated by Maulana Shah Mohammad Shahabadi. It may be recalled that it was originally commissioned by Kashmiri sultan Zainulabedin. The famous Sanskrit folktales Panchtantra were rendered into Persian by Mulla Hussain Waiz and was named Kaleela wa Dimna. Akbar found the morals of the stories too inspiring and found that the Waiz’s translation was deficient in transferring the essence. He then ordered its review by his noble courtier Abul Fazal who ultimately came up with a simple rendering and titled as Ayyar e Danish.
Malik Mohammad Jaisi (b. 1498) wrote Padmavath during the reign of Sher Shah (in 1542) and later authored Akhravat and Chitra Rekha. Padmavath is of no less literary value than Ramayana.
Abul Fazl’s elder brother Faizi translated famous Sanskrit work Leelavath into Persian and the Persian book Zeech Jadeed Mirzai into Sanskrit. On the translation board of these two works were Gangadhar, Kishen Jyotishi, Fatehullah Khan Shirazi and Abul Fazal.
Akbar himself wrote poetry in Hindi and took the pseudonym of Rai Karan. His famous couplet:
Jako jas hai jagat mein, jagat sarai jahi, Tako japon saphal hai, kahe Akbar sahi.
Akbar’s court bristled with Hindi and Sanskrit poets and scholars. Among whom Raimanohar Mol, Raja Mukund Singh, Rai Jagannath, Raja Todermal and Raja Man Singh were prominent. The list is endless. The general encouragement accorded to Indian languages led to blossoming of Hindi as a lingua franca. Leading Hindi poets like Haridas, Surdas, Tulsi Das, Ras Khan, Nandas, Kabir Das, Raheem Khankahnan, Chaturbhuj Das, Chechet Swami, Parmanand Das, Govindswamy were products of this age. Joining this poetic galaxy was emperor’s own son, Prince Sultan Daniyal. Emperor Jehangir has lauded his brother’s Hindi poetry in his chronicle known as Tuzk e Jehangiri.
It is also a fantastic fallacy of history to attribute founding of a new faith, ‘Din e Ilahi’ to emperor Akbar. Akbar himself was unlettered. Death of his erudite father Babur early in the childhood did not allow him to attain education. But what he missed by pedagogy, he tried to attain through proximity to a wide ranging ulema and scholars. Governance of a country of as vast a diversity as India imparted a rare catholicity to his outlook. Be it Purkottham Brahman or Sheikh Tajuddin, Portuguese missionaries or Zoroastrian delegation from Navsari in Gujarat, all had free access to the emperor’s court. Their daily discourses, debates and arguments cast diverse influences on the emperor. All this led to Akbar developing a basic belief in the commonness of all religions but never to the extent of heresy against Islam and coercing his citizen to follow a new faith. Nevertheless, several apocryphal accounts have blended with history to prove that Akbar founded Din e Ilahi1. Firmans like ban on cow slaughter owed itself more to the respect for the sensitivities of Hindu subjects who worshipped cow as well as on advice of royal hakeems that cow beef caused several ailments and was not desirable from health point of view. Along with cow, the ban extended to buffalo, horses and camels too. His commandments with regard to appreciation of light (charagh afrozi) have been exaggerated to mean sun worship. The essence of Akbar’s catholic outlook was Sulhe kul or ‘general consensus’ among all religions on certain human values.
Long after Akbar, the Mughal court continued the tradition of cultural blending.
Ramayana was translated into Persian in a poetic style by Sheikh Saadullah during the tenure of Jehangir and was titled as Rama wo Seeta.2 Famous Sanskrit work Padmavat was rendered into Persian in 1617. Chitravalli, the Hindi poetry collection by poet Usman is creation of Jehangir’s age. Sheikh Nabi Hindi of Mhow compiled his Hindi poems in a book Gyan Deep, which is sufi-cum-romantic poetry.
Hindi poet Jagannath Pandit Raj was the most favourite poet of Shah Jehan on whom he conferred the titled of Kavi Rai. He appointed Hindi poet Sundar as poet laureate who later compiled Sundar Shringar. It was during Shah Jehan’s tenure that Maulana Abdur Rahman Chishti penned the dialogue between Mahadev and Parvathi and built up an analogy with Adam and Eve, the first ancestors of human beings according to the Islamic and Christian theology. He made a poetic translation of Geeta into Persian.
Dara Shikoh, the third son of Shah Jehan, wrote Majmaaul Bahrain wherein he tries to close the gap between Islam and Hinduism and considers them two springs from the same source. Mughal literary activity did not confine itself to on literary masterpieces. Dara Shikoh developed a deep understanding of rural ambience and compiled a book of farming tips tieled Nuskha dar Fanni Falahat (The Art of Agriculture)3.
Hindu-Muslim interaction went beyond literature and gave rise to several syncretic movements like Kabir Panthis, blending elements of faith and culture of both Hinduism and Islam. On a larger plane, even Sikhism and Arya Samaj represent the trend. But there are even less heard variants such as Sultani Jats of Jalandhar. They are known so as they are devotees of Sultan Sakhi Sarwar, a sage whose mausoleum is in Shahkot, now Pakistan. They eat only Halal meat. They are mostly peasants and smoke on huqqa. They set up Sultan ziyarat outside their villages. They clean this on Thursday evenings and light up lamps. This may not be pleasing to the ears of followers of Salafi Islam or other puritanical movements4.
Till 1947 they used to take out jatra to Shahkot’s mausoleum every year. Partition discontinued this tradition. During Sikh rule, the Sikh governor of Multan banned it and levied Rs. 100 as fine on every one who attempted at going on a jatra. But the practice could not be curbed. It continued to be in practice till Ludhiana and Jalandhar Gazetteers were started to publish.
Cultural interaction extended beyond the Hindi heartland. Sultan Nasir Shah (1282-1325) was fond of Bangla language. When he found that classical literary masterpieces were absent in Bangla, he commissioned the translation of Mahabharat and Ramayana in Bangla language. Sultan Hussain Shah appointed Maladhar Basu to translate Bhagwat Puranas in Bangla. Hussain Shah’s commander-in-chief Praful commissioned the second translation of Mahabharat. He appointed Jayasri Karan on the project.
Hindutva or Muslim zealots may be interested in projecting the ancient and medieval history into neat compartments of Hindu and Muslim history. But people have absorbed influences from each other’s faith, cultures, customs, ethos and habits. It is why one needs to look at South Asian Islam as it has been lived out, rather than from the doctrinal prism.
Notes and references
1-Accounts of a Portuguese Father in 1594 (Akbar died in 1606 after 50 years of rule) merely mention rumours about Akbar’s intention to found a new faith. Din e Ilahi does not find any mention among the chronicles of his age which are a legion. Famous chronicler Abul Fazal has titled his firmans as Aayeen e Rahnumaii (Constitutional Guidance). The term Din e Ilahi was first used in Dabistan e Mazahib, which was compiled nearly 70 years after emperor’s death.
2-Makhtutat e Farsi, India Office Library, Vol. 1
3- Nuskha Dar Fanni-Falahat (The Art of Agriculture) by Dara Shikoh and translated by Razia Akbar has been published by Asian Agri-History Foundation, 47-ICRISAT Colony-I, Brig. Sayeed Road, Secunderabad-500 009 in 2002.
4-Sheikh Mohammad Ikram, Aab-e-Kausar, Adabi Dunia, Matiamahal, New Delhi, 1991
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