Book review: No clash of cultures in India during the Persianate age

Sacred duties: Akbar styled himself a saintly king and set up a system of ruling based on discipline and rational order
India In The Persianate Age


Author: Richard M Eaton

Publisher: Allen Lane

Pages: 336

Price: Rs 999

It is a brave historian indeed who can write an account of what is conventionally called the medieval period of Indian history without a passing reference to Irfan Habib’s The Agrarian System of Mughal India  — which transformed the understanding of the period. Richard Eaton does this — and does so with great panache — because he has a thesis to argue and a rather important one at that.

Simply put, the argument is that this period saw a profoundly creative encounter between two different worlds — the Sanskrit and the Persian. The former was defined by a corpus of ideas articulated through Sanskrit texts between the 4th and 14th centuries that circulated across India. These were not only religious texts but they contained rules of kingship, grammar, aesthetics, etiquette, goals of life and virtue, of knowledge, among others. It was this world that encountered the Persianate one that embraced a large arc stretching across West, Central and South Asia. 

Both these worlds had a trans-regional quality. The Persianate world, like the Sanskrit one, was defined by language, culture and texts. There was a large body of imaginative literature but there was also a large body of writing about power and authority. One predominant theme of these texts was the invocation of a particular conception of a universal ruler, the sultan. This political discourse, long before Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers in Europe, had begun to theorise the separation between the Church and the State. Eaton argues that these two worlds were not tied down to any one religion and that the two worlds were not hostile. He writes, “…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”. To continue to quote Eaton, “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.” What was important here, and Eaton underlines this, was “the elevation of justice, not religion, as the measure of proper governance”: it was this that allowed Persianised states to flourish throughout India, notwithstanding the religion of the ruler.This book is about this interaction in which, in terms of political power, the Persianate world came to dominate for about 500 years. This period had certain significant consequences. It witnessed the disappearance of Buddhism, the rise of Sikhism, the emergence of the world’s largest Muslim society, the clearance of large acres of forests for grain cultivation, the integration of tribal clans into the Hindu social order and the growth of India as a major producer and exporter of manufactured textiles. It also saw the arrival of Europeans, not as mere travellers, but as organised trading companies, thus ushering India to a new and different encounter with the European West.

Eaton argues his case in rich empirical detail though his account is heavily tilted towards a history of political authority and how this authority was wielded across India as the idea of the sultanate spread across not just North India but even into the Deccan. It is necessary for him to do this since he wants to demonstrate — contrary to the current received wisdom — that this period was not one that saw the imposition of Islam on Indian polity and society. Eaton shows that the exercise of political power was decoupled from religion, particularly from the religious faith of an individual ruler. Here his analysis of the regional kingdoms that emerged in Bengal, Jaunpur and in the Deccan (Bahmani and Vijayanagara) in the aftermath of Timur’s invasion, in what Eaton calls India’s long 15th century, is especially illustrative. In fact, his chapter, “Timur’s Invasion and Legacy, 1400-1550” is arguably the most original in the book analytically. 

One of the more enduring legacies of Timur — too often viewed as nothing more than a ruthless plunderer — was the idea of a universal and inclusive ruler. His descendants in India — Babur, the founder of Mughal rule, was the son of the great-great-grandson of Timur — attempted to establish such a monarchy in India. Akbar, even though his religious views and his views on kingship went through many tortuous twists and turns, styled himself a saintly king and set up a system of ruling based on discipline and rational order, especially in governance and administration. Imperial administration recorded and standardised modes of administration especially land-revenue collection. His rule established unprecedented levels of efficiency that were almost modern. His great grandson, Aurangzeb, moved away in principle from the model of “saintly kingship”. Eaton writes, “Instead of a state that pivoted on a charismatic, sacred emperor, he tried to establish an impersonal polity governed by the rule of law, for which purpose he gave sweeping powers to the Mughal judiciary and patronised the production of the Fatawa-i Alamgiri, a comprehensive and authoritative legal compendium of Hanifi Sunni Islam that was promulgated throughout the empire.” 

The attempts of Akbar and his great grandson were not entirely successful, since in the case of the former, the idea of a sacred king sat very uneasily with notions of modern, rational efficiency. And Aurangzeb often lapsed into the inherited role of a sacred-mystical king as when he was thought to have stemmed a river in torrent by casting on it pieces of paper on which he had written prayers. Their failures notwithstanding, Eaton believes that their projects had put in place “critical foundations of modern South Asia”.

Professor Eaton’s book is admirable and magisterial. But it rather ignores the economic foundations of both the sultanate and the Mughal rule. His position is that politically the Mughal state was not Leviathan-like and did not crush all opposition under the imperial juggernaut. But he does not address the economic purpose and role of the Mughal state: the relentless extraction of surplus from the land, which was Leviathan-like. It was this extraction that sustained the interaction between the two worlds that lies at the heart of the book. This is very much a top-down view since the world of Sanskrit and Persian learning was fashioned by elites. Perhaps Irfan Habib’s emphasis on the economic foundations of political authority has not lost its relevance altogether.

Postscript: I would like to add that Eaton includes one of the most pertinent quotes on history that I have come across. It is from Mark Twain and runs thus: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The reviewer is chancellor and professor of history, Ashoka University

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