The Two Languages That Shaped the History of India
From Richard M. Eaton's Cundill Prize-Nominated
India in the Persianate Age
Western Civilization, Dar al-Islam (“the abode of Islam”), Christen-dom, the Motherland, the Free World, the Promised Land, the Third World, the Middle Kingdom—these are just some of the terms in which people have imagined geographical space, attempting in each instance to impose culture or ideology on to territory. It can be a vexed enterprise. In recent years the Sanskritist and historian Sheldon Pollock, suggesting a very different way of thinking about cultural space, coined the term “Sanskrit cosmopolis,” referring to the diffusion of Indian culture across a vast swathe of Southern Asia between the fourth century and the fourteenth. Sanskrit place names alone attest to the geographical sweep of a culturally connected zone between Afghanistan’s Kandahar (Skt Gandhara) and the South-east Asian city state of Singapore (Skt Singhapura).
For Pollock, what characterized this Sanskrit world was not religion but the ideas elaborated in the entire corpus of Sanskrit texts that, between the fourth and fourteenth centuries, circulated above and across the world of vernacular, regional tongues. Sanskrit, like only a few others, was a language that travelled: it was not a “language of place.” Not being identified with a particular ethnic or linguistic group or with a particular region, Sanskrit was transregional by nature, or, as Pollock puts it, “a language of the gods in the world of men.” Texts composed in Sanskrit embraced everything from rules of grammar to styles of kingship, architecture, proper comportment, the goals of life, the regulation of society, the acquisition of power and wealth, and much more. The circulation of these texts and of the people who carried them created a network of shared idioms and styles that made similar claims about aesthetics, polity, kingly virtue, learning and the universality of dominion. Fundamentally, the Sanskrit world—that is, the vast sweep of territory in which such texts circulated and were considered normative—was concerned with defining and preserving moral and social order.
Moreover, this cultural formation expanded over much of Asia not by force of arms but by emulation, and without any governing centre or fortified frontiers. It was thus comparable to the Hellenized world that embraced the Mediterranean basin and the Middle East after Alexander the Great. For that world, too, was a cultural zone without political borders, in which people of many ethnic or religious backgrounds readily subscribed to the prestige of Greek language, sculpture, drama, cuisine, architecture and so on, but without paying taxes to a Greek official or submitting to the might of Greek soldiers. We may contrast this “cosmopolis” idea with any classical empire, such as the Roman, with its centralized governing structure, sharp distinction between citizens and non-citizens, fortified frontiers and reliance on the hard power of coercive force as opposed to the soft power of models that encourage emulation.
The Sanskrit world that Pollock describes was, however, only one such formation to have appeared in South Asian history. From about the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries a similar, Persianate world embraced much of West, Central and South Asia. Both expanded and flourished well beyond the land of their origin, giving them a transregional, “placeless” quality. Both were grounded in a prestige language and literature that conferred elite status on its users. Both articulated a model of worldly power—specifically, universal dominion. And while both elaborated, discussed and critiqued religious traditions, neither was grounded in a religion, but rather transcended the claims of any of them. Decoupled from particular religious systems, both of these transregional traditions could and did spread over great expanses of territory, and were embraced by peoples of varied ethnic and religious backgrounds. Fundamentally—and this is the underlying theme of this book—much of India’s history between 1000 and 1800 can be understood in terms of the prolonged and multifaceted interaction between the Sanskrit and Persianate worlds.
India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 by Richard M. Eaton has been shortlisted for the 2020 Cundill History Prize.
But what exactly is the Persianate world, and how did it evolve? Several centuries after the Arab conquest of the Iranian plateau in the seventh century, Persian-speakers gradually recovered a rich but largely submerged pre-Islamic Persian civilization. The linguistic dimension of this movement saw the emergence of New Persian—a hybrid of the indigenous Middle Persian of Iran’s Sasanian period (AD 224–651) and the Arabic brought to the Iranian plateau in the course of the Arab conquest. This new language appeared first in spoken form across the Iranian plateau and deep into Central Asia. A written form using a modified Arabic script emerged in the ninth and tenth centuries, when Persian writers in present-day north-eastern Iran, western Afghanistan and Central Asia began appropriating the cultural heritage of both Arab Islam and pre-Islamic Iran.Fundamentally, the Sanskrit world—that is, the vast sweep of territory in which such texts circulated and were considered normative—was concerned with defining and preserving moral and social order.
Initially, at least, these developments were promoted and patronized by the court of the Samanid kings in Central Asia (819–999). Based in Bukhara (in today’s southern Uzbekistan), the Samanid domain straddled major trade routes connecting the Iranian plateau with the Mediterranean to the west, India to the south and, via the Silk Road, China to the east. Bukhara thus lay in a commercially vibrant zone. It was also multilingual, as Arabic and Turkish were both commonly used there, as was, until the eleventh century, Sogdian. But New Persian (henceforth simply “Persian”) was now the lingua franca, having replaced the region’s indigenous Iranian languages and dialects.
As with the Sanskrit texts, from the eleventh century onwards a large corpus of imaginative literature in Persian began to circulate widely through West, Central and South Asia. A case in point is the cycle of epics based on the historical Alexander penned by such luminaries as Firdausi (d. 1020) in Iran, Nizami (d. 1209) in Georgia, Amir Khusrau (d. 1325) in India and Jami (d. 1492) in Afghanistan. Although composed a great distance apart, and circulating over an even wider one that spanned many vernacular cultures, these works enabled diverse peoples to imagine and inhabit a single cosmopolitan space enlivened by Alexander’s realor imagined exploits. Such works of literature helped knit together a “Persianate world” across West, Central and South Asia. However, like Sanskrit texts, Persian literature had no single geographical or political centre, especially after the thirteenth century when Mongol invaders overran Central Asia and northern Iran, destabilizing their courts.
From that point on, peoples in far-flung regions such as the Caucasus or India might retain everyday use of their local languages while cultivating, and even producing, great works of Persian literature. By the fourteenth century Persian had become a vibrant and prestigious literary language, a widely used medium in state bureaucracies, and the principal contact tongue for inter-regional diplomacy along the Silk Road between Anatolia and East Asia. In Mongol-dominated China, it served not only as a lingua franca but as the official foreign language. The Venetian merchant-traveller Marco Polo (d. 1324) mainly used Persian in China, as he did, in fact, throughout his travels on the Silk Road. So did his near-contemporary and even greater globetrotter Ibn Battuta (d. 1377), who travelled many of the same pan-Asian circuits in fourteenth-century Asia.
Of particular relevance for understanding India’s changed political order after the late twelfth century is what Persian writers had to say about power and authority. Crucially, the same culturally diverse milieu that had nurtured the literary and bureaucratic use of Persian under Samanid patronage also shaped a particular conception of a universal ruler or “sultan,” the title preferred by such men throughout the Persianate world. Occupying a political space above all ethnic groups and religious communities, this figure was understood as both universal and supreme: he occupied unlimited sovereign space and commanded the loyalty of all lesser political actors.
The crystallization of the idea of the sultan in the tenth and eleventh centuries resulted from two factors in particular: the steady decline of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, which in theory ruled over the entire eastern Islamic world, including Central Asia; and the infiltration of waves of Turkish-speakers from eastern Asia into urbanized Central Asia and northern Iran. Some came as military recruits, others as pastoral nomadic migrants, others as powerful confederations of warriors. To accommodate these new realities, political thought in South-west Asia underwent drastic revisions. In particular, spiritual and political authority split into separate spheres, with the caliph retaining his religious authority and the sultan exercising effective political power. Making the best of a bad situation, a leading theologian of the time, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), pronounced that any government was lawful so long as its ruler, or sultan, acknowledged the caliph’s authority in spiritual matters. Reciprocally, caliphs accepted the secular authority of upstart sultans under the fiction of having appointed them to their office.Spiritual and political authority split into separate spheres, with the caliph retaining his religious authority and the sultan exercising effective political power.
Stoking memories of pre-Islamic Iran, poets and chroniclers endowed these sultans with the same pretentions to absolutist rule as pre-Islamic Persian emperors. In the early twelfth century the historian Ibn Balkhi conceived of kingship in that earlier age as based on the supreme principle of justice, for, he wrote, every king had taught his heir apparent the following maxim:
There is no kingdom without an army, no army without wealth, no wealth without material prosperity, and no material prosperity without justice.
Persian scholars such as Ibn Balkhi made no attempt to yoke state power to Islam or to any other religious tradition; instead, it was justice that bound their world together. Notably, long before Renaissance or Enlightenment thinkers in Europe began theorizing the separation of Church and State, intellectuals in eleventh-and twelfth-century Iran and Central Asia were already doing precisely that. Such a secularist conception of government would have far-reaching implications for rulers styling themselves sultans in areas as ethnically diverse as India. In fact, by the time it reached India, the term “sultan” had become so detached from ethnicity or religion that Hindu rulers, aspiring to the most powerful titles then available to them, adopted it. In 1347 Marappa, one of the founders of the Deccan kingdom of Vijayanagara, declared himself “sultan among Indian kings” (hindu-raya-suratalah), a title used also by his earliest successors.
India’s eventual inclusion in this expanding Persianate world was thus facilitated by, among other things, a ruling ideology that had co-opted the political authority of a caliph, embraced the principle of universal justice and accommodated cultural diversity. Such an inclusivist political ideology happened to be well suited for governing a north Indian society that was itself extraordinarily diverse religiously, linguistically and socially. Moreover, the elevation of justice, not religion, as the measure of proper governance allowed Persianized states to flourish throughout India, notwithstanding a ruler’s own religion. As argued by Ziya al-Din Barani (d. c. 1357), a leading historian and theorist of the early Delhi sultanate, whereas any country could flourish under a non-Muslim ruler as long he was just, no country ruled by a Muslim would flourish if he was unjust.
What is perhaps most remarkable about the Persianate world, however, is how readily its core ideas diffused not only within Indian territories governed by Persianized states such as the Delhi sultanate, but also into territories lying beyond such states. A distinctively Persianate ideology privileging the notion of justice and connecting economy, morality and politics infiltrated peninsular India even while that region was governed by independent Hindu rulers. At some point in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries the Telugu poet Baddena, writing at the Kakatiya court at Warangal in southern India, penned these striking lines:
To acquire wealth: make the people prosper. To make the people prosper: justice is the means. O Kirti Narayana! They say that justice is the treasury of kings.
In linking wealth, prosperity and justice, this terse aphorism seems to paraphrase Ibn Balkhi. Moreover, it is clear that the idea of justice, so central to Persian political thought, had been freely borrowed by Baddena and not imposed from without. Like Mongol rulers on the Iranian plateau, Baddena had assimilated a Persianate vision of political and moral order, even though he lived very far from the Delhi sultanate.
Apart from political ideology, other aspects of Persian culture spread throughout South Asia after the thirteenth-century Turkish conquest of north India, including styles of architecture, dress, music, courtly comportment, cuisine and, especially, vocabulary. As the geographical reach of Persian letters expanded, so did the production of dictionaries, whose compilers sought to make literature produced in different parts of the Persophone world mutually comprehensible; by the nineteenth century, many more Persian-language dictionaries had been produced in India than in Iran, suggesting how thoroughly India had been absorbed into that world. Indeed, by the fourteenth century Persian had already become the most widely used language for governance across South Asia, as Indians filled the vast revenue and judicial bureaucracies in the Delhi sultanate and its successor states, and later in the Mughal empire (1526–1858) and its successors. As a result, a wide range of Persian words infiltrated the vocabulary of many of South Asia’s major regional languages.
All of which brings us back to the theme of periodization, and the rationale for this book’s chronological borders of 1000 and 1765. Recent generations of historians of India have rightly eschewed the old tripartite Hindu–Muslim–British scheme and have reverted to its European predecessor, the ancient-medieval-modern one. But the precise meaning of these timespans, especially the second, has remained elusive. Instead of giving substance to the term “medieval,” historians have produced a host of high-quality regional studies covering the whole or part of the period 1000–1800–e.g. on Bengal, Gujarat, Malabar, Orissa, the Punjab, the Deccan plateau, the Delhi region, the Tamil country. As a result, the term “medieval” when applied to India as a whole has become something of an orphan-repeatedly invoked, but lacking meaning. As the historian Daud Ali notes:
the category of medieval has gradually been evacuated of any definitive substance in most national historiographies, in favor of a sort of cacophony of regional isolates simply holding the fort until the cavalry arrives
By “the cavalry” Ali appears to mean some new conceptual handle or idea that might confer meaning on the term “medieval,” other than that of a religiously defined Muslim era.
I argue that there is such a handle. As it happens, the period of India’s history conventionally labelled “medieval” coincides with the eastward diffusion of Persianate culture across almost all the Indian subcontinent and its interaction with its Sanskrit counterpart. The story of this interaction—the encounter between the Persian and Sanskrit worlds—is both rich and complex.
Excerpt taken from India in the Persianate Age: 1000-1765 by Richard M. Eaton, published in North America by University of California Press.