Exploring ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ through Medieval Sanskrit Narratives


The author, Rahul Govind, gives us, by way of a review of Audrey Truschke’s book, a glimpse of the world of medieval Sanskrit and what they tell us about ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ identity in their own time.

Rahul Govind

THERE is the view that the medieval period of Indian history witnessed an all-consuming battle between Hindus (who were native to India) and Muslims (who came to India as conquerors). This originated as a typical colonial strategy of ‘divide and rule’ in the 19th century, but then transformed into a communal politics that ultimately led to Partition. In India today this very view is becoming a dominant one, where the medieval period is assumed to be nothing but the destruction of an ancient indigenous Sanskritic culture by invading Muslims.

Audrey Trucshke’s book, Language of History, on the contrary, shows us that Sanskrit not only flourished in the medieval period but also that none of these Sanskrit texts and inscriptions from the 8th to the 18th century provide any evidence for the above view. In fact, as she shows, through a meticulous reading, Sanskrit texts throughout the medieval period commented on Muslim and Indo-Muslim rulers in complex ways; a complexity that cannot be reduced to the Hindu-Muslim binary of religious conflict of much more recent provenance.

Firstly, as she says, ‘Hindu’ was not a term used by those living in the sub-continent to describe themselves. During the early period between 700 and 1000 CE, when Muslims were not a dominant force, except for Sindh, Sanskrit inscriptions from Gujarat to Maharashtra described Muslims as Tajikas and Turushkas, ethonyms without characterising them in terms of any religious beliefs. Tajikas and Turishkas were mentioned alongside other communities such as Tomaras, Pandyas or Chola and battles against them were described in literary terms that were no different from descriptions of wars with other such communities none of whom were described as ‘Hindu’; there was therefore no question of a dominant Hindu-Muslim conflict. The one pre-1000 Sanskrit inscription that names an individual Muslim, Madhumati, speaks of him as an administrator under the Rashtrakutas, giving a donation to a Brahmin monastery.

Apart from the above, a series of Buddhist texts, the Kalacakratantra and its commentaries composed in the 11th century comment on Muslims. Unlike the Sanskrit inscriptions discussed above, these texts evince an interest in Islamic belief. In their criticism of these beliefs they draw a comparison between Islam and the Vedic traditions, by writing, “In both Islam and Vedic traditions, killing is required for the sake of the gods and one’s ancestors. It is the same for the Kshatriyas. The Brahmin sages said, ‘having pleased your forefathers and gods it is not an error to eat meat’, and ‘I see no error in a person who would injure and evil man’. Therefore those who consider Vedic traditions authoritative will embrace Islam”[1].

These texts were composed around the same time as the raid on the Somnath temple by Mahmud of Ghazni. The outrage that many at present feel at this episode is not however documented in any contemporary Brahmin authored source. Truschke, argues that this silence might reflect the fact that such raids on temples were not unusual, particularly given the historical fact that three years before the raid on Somnath, Rajendra Chola I had “sacked another Shiva temple in the Pala kingdom of Bengal…and carted off its central image as a war trophy”[2]. That the Somnath temple was not completely destroyed or was re-built very soon is documented by the record of a royal pilgrimage undertaken there just a decade after 1025.

The next major event memorialised as a Hindu-Muslim encounter today was the conflict between Muhammad of Ghori and Prithviraj Chauhan. Even though the Chauhans never called themselves Hindus and the Ghurids adhered to an Islamic sect that was considered aberrant by mainstream Sunnis. Moreover, according to an early 13th century Persian chronicle, after defeat, Prithviraj Chauhan was retained as a vassal for limited period, something that may be seen as corroborated by coins bearing the names of both Muhammad Ghori and Prithviraj Chauhan. Other contemporaneous accounts speak of his execution by Muhammad Ghori in different circumstances.

Truschke focuses her analysis on Jayanaka’s Prithvirajavijaya, written in 1190s under Chauhan patronage. In the poem, to preserve the ritual-caste order, Brahma convinces Vishnu to reincarnate himself as Prithviraj and destroy Muhamad Ghori. The Ghurids are spoken of as outcastes and low caste (Matanga, JanagamaCandalaMlechhas), with impure dietary habits (drinking the blood of horses, roasting live fish, cow-killers), and therein who posed an impending threat to temples and Brahmins. However, for Trushke such descriptions are neither about a threat to “‘Hinduism’ writ-large”[3], or a ‘foreign’ invasion, but rather indicate Jayanaka’s defence of a particular ritual-caste order concerning a specific elite group in defence of a dynasty against a political threat.

This can be seen in the fact that Jayanka, departed from his predecessor, Somadeva, who wrote under the patronage of Prithviraj’s uncle. Somadeva‘s Lalitavigraharaja, characterised Muslims with respectful titles such as Hamira, with the ambassador of the Turushka’s even speaking Sanskrit. It must also be remembered that the literary convention of having the hero as an incarnation of Vishnu cannot be read as a sign of a Hindu-Muslim or Native-Foreigner encounter because Sanskrit narratives often cast their heroes as Vishnu combatting Asuras even when treating conflicts between non-Muslims. The near contemporary text Ramacharitam by Sandhyakarnandin, treats its hero Ramapala as Vishnu battling the rebel Kaivartas (from the fishing community).

Truschke shows that the dawn of the Indo-Persian world meant the introduction of new royal titles in Sanskrit such as Hamira (from which admiral derives) from the 12th century and Suratana (from Sultan, but also meaning ‘the gods’ protector’ in Sanskrit) from the 13th century. Between 1250 and 1350, rulers in India called themselves Hammiras; the term ‘Hindu’ was not in use.

The earliest use of ‘Hindu’ in Sanskrit is as late as 1347, centuries after the advent of the Turushkas and Tajikas. It occurs when one of the founders of Vijayanagara, Marappa, declared himself to be a ‘Sultan among Hindu Kings’ (Hindurayasuratala).This title of Suratana/Sultan continued with or without compounding the ‘Hindu kings’. This lack of the specific distinctiveness of religiosity as a marker of political significance is also apparent in Sanskrit inscriptions from the North that position Muslim rulers as the successors of earlier rulers like the Tomars and Chauhans without comment, showing an integration and legitimation of Indo-Muslim rulers within the political landscape and historical memory of the subcontinent. Something that some make it difficult to achieve even today.

The complex characterisation of Muslims and Indo-Muslim rulers continues chapter after chapter where Truschke reads Sanskrit texts from diverse traditions. In Nyanchandra Suri’s Hammiramahakavya (15th century), for instance, the Mongol Muslim, Muhammad Shah is portrayed with the ideals of Kshatriya valour and loyalty towards his ruler Hamira Chauhan, whereas others in the court such as Ratipala and Ranamall betray him in in his battle and ultimate defeat at the hands of Alauddin Khalji. Devavimala’s Hiraaubhagya, gently portrays the superiority of Jain theology over Islamic belief, while Rudrakavi’s Rastraudhavamsamahakavya (17th century) show the Rathods of Baglan, to be illustrious Kshatriya rulers in their aid of the Mughals against the Nizam Shahis. Sanskrit texts extolled the virtues of those who thus fought both for and against Indo-Muslims rulers and this continued in the context of Maratha rulers too.

In her reading of Sanskrit historical and literary material, only some of which is showcased above, Truschke shows that battles fought in medieval India were fought on various grounds and in terms of several factors such as region and dynasty. Her work ought to be read with Richard M Eaton’s recent India in the Persianate Age. Eaton too complicates any simple ‘Islamic conquest’ narrative by showing that as far back as the early 13th century Muslim/Turks were fighting on behalf of local dynasties against invading Muslim/Turks[4]. Similarly, in 13th century Palam (near Delhi), Thakur Udahara built a well in the name of which Pandit Yogishvara composed an inscription which spoke of the glory of the ruling Sultan, integrating him into the history of the region which was first ruled by the Tomaras and then the Chauhans. An excerpt of which has been translated as “The earth being now supported by this sovereign, Sesha, altogether forsaking his duty of supporting the weight of the globe has betaken himself to the great bed of Vishnu: Vishnu himself, for the sake of protection, taking Lakshmi on his breast, and relinquishing all worries, sleeps in peace on the ocean of milk”[5].

While temple destruction was referred to and certainly occurred, it cannot be simply assumed that temples symbolised the faith of an entire native population. That they were closely linked with particular rulers and their dynasties is evidenced by the destruction of temples by those other than Muslims, and that they catered to particular sections of the populations is clear from the fact that temple-entry movements occurred as recently as in the colonial period and required the sanction by law. Truschke too notes that the Sanskrit texts see temple destruction in terms of the destruction of a specific socio-ritual-caste order.

Certain Persian texts from the medieval period did indeed deploy a religious rhetoric that was vicious towards those perceived as infidels. And they certainly can and ought to be criticised as a set of normative claims. But they cannot be taken literally as historical description. A close reading of these texts by historians in conjunction with other texts and materials of the period clearly prove them to be unreliable indicators of historical reality. Moreover, there were other Persian texts that were much more expansive normatively, and it must be remembered that none of the religious traditions of medieval period anywhere in the world envisioned something like a modern demarcated territorial state based on the principle of nationality and legally mandating equality and liberty as fundamental human rights.

If by nationality one means a justiciable legal claim or right of political representation on the basis of citizenship in a demarcated territory, one cannot speak of Hindus as a nation in the medieval (or ancient) period, where the idea or national or political citizenship did not exist. Many would argue that nation-states can really be traced only into the 20th century, since Western countries were largely imperialist and slave-holding powers until they were resisted and overthrown by movements across the word. That our diplomats and military commanders use the maps of colonial and Independent India in demarcating and defining their territory rather than the descriptions of jambudvipa is but further testimony to the modernity of our nation-state.

Only by recognising the fallacies of anachronism – falsely attributing the ideas and institutions of one period to another – can we genuinely learn, marvel and enjoy the offerings of the past. And resist their manipulation for the present. This is a lesson that Truschke, and the immense scholarship in her notes, teaches us, from Sanskrit texts to the rich and textured scholarship across generations and methodological orientations, from Marxism to Philology, Hermeneutics to History. It is a pity that such work in general is not known to the public at large. And in this sense Languages of History, as a contribution to and conduit of, such painstaking scholarship, could not be more timely.

However, I end with what might be called a criticism. An implicit claim running throughout the book — which takes explicit form briefly in the introduction and conclusion — is that one must treat the Sanskrit texts as ‘historical’. These texts are to be seen as historical not merely in the sense of being a legitimate source in reconstructing history, but historical in the sense of the modern discipline of history (hereafter History), or having qualities that can positively contribute to the expansion of History as modern knowledge form. Truschke’s only real argument, following from Hayden White, is that ‘narrative’ elements exist in History. However, this in itself cannot be taken to mean that any narrative form is therefore History, since the minimal condition for History is that it stakes a claim to knowledge on the basis of evidence and/as sources.

This is not a claim to some absolute certitude, but a claim backed with evidence put out in the public domain, and open to refutation. Sources and evidence can be checked and scrutinised allowing for a collective endeavour; for the deep and fraught genealogy of the footnote and its role in historical argument in the European tradition there is no better work than Grafton’s Footnote.

The Sanskrit texts do not make such knowledge-claims or invite counter-claims on the basis of evidence, and if one gives up this essential condition for History, it no longer can claim to be knowledge of any sort; allowing therefore for any set of beliefs to claim historicity. Such an argument has indeed led to the dangerous, vicious propaganda and the utter destruction of the possibility of evaluating any claim to History (in both senses) that we are all familiar with. Truschke, recognises the problem when she says, “In fact, historical truth is more crucial than ever in India’s burgeoning Hindu Rashtra..there are intellectual and human casualties of the abandonment of historicity in the present day”[6]. Nonetheless, she provides no cogent or sustained argument to support the claim that Sanskrit texts have anything to teach us about historicity or History.



[1] Audrey Truschke, The Language of History (Penguin 2021), 11. Note 51, citing John Newman, “Islam in the Kalachakkra Tantra”, Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 21, no. 2 (1998): with minor corrections by Truschke, 347)

[2] Audrey Truschke, The Language of History (Penguin 2021) , 14

[3] Audrey Truschke, The Language of History (Penguin 2021), 33

[4] Richard M Eaton’s recent India in the Persianate Age (Penguin 2019) 4

[5] Richard M Eaton’s recent India in the Persianate Age (Penguin 2019), 55-56, Note 60 citing Pushpa Prasad, Sanskrit Inscriptions of the Delhi Sultanate, 1191-1526 (Delhi Oxford University Press 1990), 3-15.

[6] Audrey Truschke, The Language of History (Penguin 2021) , 199


(Rahul Govind teaches history at the Department of History, Delhi University and writes at the borders of history and political theory. The article first appeared in kafila.online)


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