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Courtly Encounters (Review)

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Audrey Truschke. 2016.
Courtly Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court
New York: Columbia University Press
ISBN 9780231540971

Courtly Encounters is a groundbreaking study of Sanskrit in the Mughal Court from 1560-1660 ce. In this book, Truschke argues that ‘the Mughal imperium … was defined largely by repeated engagements with Sanskrit thinkers, texts, and ideas’ (p. 2) that embedded the court in the ‘intellectual landscape of South Asia’ (p. 4). The author uses the information to problematize our received narrative of Indian history, particularly related to the Mughals, and its implication on contemporary politics in the subcontinent. One of the things that sets this book apart is the author’s command over both Persian and Sanskrit, a rare and enviable quality, that allows her to expertly examine literature across Islamic, Jain, and Brahmin traditions. The work is truly novel, impeccably researched, and very well written. It will inevitably have great influence in the field and is a ‘must-read’ for historians and religious studies scholars working on early modern, modern, and contemporary India.

This book is extremely rich and is important on many levels, but for the purposes of this review I will limit my discussion of Courtly Encounters to sovereignty, a thread that runs through the entire book.

Legitimation theory and sovereignty
Truschke’s discussion of sovereignty begins from a critique of legitimation theory in her introduction. Following Sheldon Pollock (Language of the Gods in the World of Men, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006) and Daud Ali (Courtly Culture and Political Life in Early Medieval India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), the author highlights the simplistic perspective of old models of legitimation theory and argues for a more nuanced understanding of the function and role of courtly aesthetic culture in the imperial project. She pushes this forward by adopting Rodney Baker’s work and arguing for a form of ‘inward-turning’ legitimation that sought to define the Mughal ‘unique political self’ (p. 19). Interestingly, she argues that in this unique political self ‘the Mughals also wished to see themselves as Indian kings and pursued this desire by appropriating a culture deeply grounded in South Asia’s pre-Islamic past’ (p. 19).

While this is certainly undeniable and richly demonstrated throughout the volume, my interest in political theology in early modern India led me to wonder how this relates to broader issues of sovereignty in premodern India. I kept thinking that instead of once again highlighting the perils of the oft-critiqued legitimation theory, it could have been productive and interesting to connect this material with work on the nature of sovereignty, e.g. Giorgio Agamben’s State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) or Carl Schmitt’s Political Theology (ed. and trans. George Schwab, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005) and The Concept of the Political (ed. and trans. George Schwab, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

Sovereignty in the Mughal court
A specific example of where this could have been helpful is in the third chapter when Truschke turns her attention to the construction of sovereignty in Persian renderings of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata. This chapter is perhaps the most intriguing of the entire work as the author explores the multiple valences between Islamicate and Sanskrit traditions in the texts and the processes of translation. Particularly interesting is the way the author expertly navigates between politics and aesthetics in order to show how the divide is arbitrary and meaningless in this case. She argues instead that the Persian Mahābhārata tradition sought to redefine sovereignty by articulating a history of kingship and by forming a new Indo-Persianate aesthetic. The chapter is thoroughly convincing in its argumentation against legitimation theory and its call to consider the role of knowledge systems and aesthetics in the construction of imperial power; however, in this discussion the implications of these translations on Indian political theology was perhaps downplayed a little too much in order to emphasize the aesthetic literary interactions. Specifically, I am thinking about the discussion of Abū al-Faz̤l’s preface to the Razmnāmah (though to be fair the author returns to this subject in brief repeatedly, including a great discussion in Chapter 6, p. 218). Akbar’s struggles to seize authority from the ulama and the declaration of the king’s authority in al-Faz̤l’s preface would have been an interesting place to discuss sovereignty and the role of aesthetics in the state of exception. This could have also set the stage for the fourth chapter in which Akbar’s ‘universal kingship’ and ‘comprehensive sovereignty’ were discussed (p. 143).

While the book was overwhelmingly convincing in its overall goals, this reviewer was left with many questions regarding sovereignty in the Mughal court: What are we to make of sovereignty and the Mughal unique political self as ‘Indian kings … deeply grounded in South Asia’s pre-Islamic past’ in the interaction of Persian and Sanskrit courtly cultures? What implications does this have for our understanding of sovereignty in Indian kingship more broadly?

The author deftly shows that the interactions between the Sanskrit and Persian literary traditions was dynamic, but it was clearly also a generative one beyond its aesthetic innovations, and limiting the discussion of sovereignty to legitimation theory brings up larger questions related to political theology and sovereignty within India that are left unaddressed. One can hardly fault the author for not treading into these discussions further given the robust manner with which she navigates so many difficult academic terrains within the book. Perhaps it will even encourage those of us interested in sovereignty and political theology to look more closely at the Mughals in the future.

In that regard, I highly recommend Courtly Encounters as not only an innovative study of Mughal courtly aesthetic culture but also for its ability to foster a greater interest in questions of the construction of sovereignty and political theology in early modern India. Libraries at any institution of higher education need to have this book on its shelves. It would be ideal reading for a graduate course on modern Indian history, religion in South Asia, Islamic history, and/or Indian Islam (any surely many others). It is probably too advanced for most undergraduate students; though it is well-written enough for bright, engaged students in upper division seminars.

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