Political Advice, Translation, and Empire in South Asia.

Author:Auer, Blain
Position::Critical essay


Advice literature in Arabic and Persian, variously known as nasai'ih and akhlaq, had a major influence in the context of Muslim imperial rule. Much of it was itself influenced by or taken directly from works of Sanskrit origin that deal with governance and ethics, an important repository for moral ideals and precepts of kingship in the medieval world of South Asia. This article will examine the long history of the efforts of different Muslim rulers to access political knowledge through translation. A full understanding of a history of translation in South Asia is still quite murky--the Mughal translation projects carried out in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a period particularly rich in translations into Persian, have tended to overshadow the various cultures of translation that existed before then. But the history begins at least in the eleventh century. It continues, with a different purpose, into the British colonial era, when the focus was also not merely on Sanskrit to Persian or Arabic.

This article takes as point of reference the text of the Hitopadesa (Friendly Advice), a classic example of Sanskrit political advice literature known as niti. This genre in Sanskrit is exemplified by the Arthasastra (Treatise on Statecraft) of Kautilya, traditionally dated to the reign of the Maurya emperor Candragupta I (321-297 BCE) and thought to be the most important work on political thought of the classical period of Sanskrit literature. (1) The original Hitopadesa was presumably composed by an author named Narayana in the court of Dhavalacandra, possibly in Bengal during the tenth century, although various other dates are given that range from the ninth through the fourteenth centuries. (2) However, the text is equally relevant for the translations that it produced. It was translated into Persian as Mufarrih al-qulub (The Rejoicer of Hearts) during the Sharqi dynastic period, ca. 1446, in the century preceding the establishment of Mughal rule in North India. A translation of Mufarrih al-qulub into the "mixed" language of North India (combining Persian and pre-modern Hindi), or Rekhta, as it was known before the standardization of modern Hindi and Urdu, was produced in the very different context of British colonial rule at the turn of the nineteenth century. (3) It was retitled Akhlaq-i hindi (Indian Ethics) and completed in 1803. These three interlinking texts, or one text in three languages, represent a kind of triptych of translation and empire.

Through a case study of these three texts, I hope to highlight the role translations played in the history of premodern global systems of knowledge. I will be investigating primarily two questions: What is the knowledge of politics and governance in different medieval and early modern worlds, and how is that knowledge transmitted across cultures through translations, copying of texts, and commentaries, i.e., through the history of manuscripts and their recensions? The process of knowledge transmission in a variety of fields--math, medicine, astronomy, political thought--was enormous and can be said to be a defining characteristic of the premodern Muslim world. Much is known about the great period of knowledge transmission from Greek into Arabic under the Abbasids (r. 750-1258), (4) but it is equally crucial to discuss the role of knowledge and language in the power and formations of empire that shaped political and social life in Asia. In what follows I hope to demonstrate three specific points relevant to this: (1) there is a common historical thread to the different translation projects of Sanskrit political advice literature as they occurred across the medieval and early modern periods; (2) this has consequences for our general view of the Mughal project as a continuation of earlier efforts; and (3) it effected significant changes in translation, language, and knowledge transmission during the British colonial period.


The study of the Hitopadesa offers many doors for exploration in the history of language and power. It is particularly suited because its subject is the knowledge of politics. Its translations into Persian and Rekhta, which are representative of the different historical periods in which they were accomplished, one kingly and royal and the other colonial and nationalistic, testify to the impact it had on very different and wide-ranging cultural, economic, and social contexts. A fundamental challenge presents itself, however, when one enters into its study. Even though the text presents a series of discussions or debates concerning questions of governance and politics, the advice is given via the deeds of animals, which makes it easy to over-emphasize its fantastic "stories" and wondrous "fables." The Hitopadesa is related to its more famous ancestor, the Pancatantra (Five Discourses), purportedly composed in the third century BCE, for it is roughly comprised of the Pancatantra in three parts, with one part derived from an unknown text or texts. (5) Both works have led an extremely rich life of cultural transmission across the centuries. The Pancatantra was translated into Pahlavi, Syriac, and Arabic, the latter becoming widely known as Kalila wa-Dimna (see below), while translations of the Hitopadesa have been traced to Tibet, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, and the Indonesian archipelago. (6) Their translations rival the cross-cultural transmission achieved by the biblical stories of Joseph. Much of the Western reception of these two texts has presented the stories contained in them as "Buddhist tales" or "Indian fables" and they became known popularly in Europe as the fables of Bidpai or Pilpay, enjoyed for their entertainment value. (7) In a sense, the Hitopadesa is a kind of Rorschach test for the early modern scholar in Europe. This was particularly the case when new translations of these texts were made by British orientalists in the early nineteenth century under a rubric of tales and fables. (8)

To treat the Hitopadesa as only tales and stories, however, does not get to the essential point of the content. Behind the animal fables there are careful reflections on the nature and exercise of power. A great degree of the success of its transmission was due to the fact that it reflected political ideals and concepts essential to a notion of kingship broadly shared across Asia, which point seems to have missed many European readers. (9) Thus, we should turn our attention to the pervasive and influential field of political knowledge in South Asian intellectual history.


As noted, the first known translation of the Hitopadesa into Persian is Mufarrih al-qulub. (10) Since the time of Antoine-Isaac Silvestre de Sacy (d. 1838), who in 1818 made a study of it and discussed the text's importance and style," there remains a considerable amount of confusion regarding its dating and patronage. There are at least three complete copies of the manuscript and many partial and nearly complete manuscripts. Two complete but undated copies are held in the British Library (BL). (12) Another complete copy, dated to 1062/1652, is held in the Bibliotheque nationale de France (BNF). (13) It was translated by Taj al-Din b. Mu'in al-Din Mufti Maliki, of whom we lack any further information. The introduction to the BNF manuscript reveals that the idea for its translation came from a ruler named Nasir al-Din, because he recognized its wise counsel and wished it to be translated into Persian. Hermann Ethe (d. 1917), the great cataloguer of Islamic manuscripts in India, identified this ruler as the Mughal emperor Humayun (r. 937-47/1530-40, 962-63/1555-56), son of Babur and father of Akbar. (14) Although this view was uncritically accepted by a number of subsequent scholars, Z. A. Desai has convincingly challenged it in a lesser-known, well-documented study that situates the Persian translation of the Hitopadesa in its proper historical context, representing a significant reorientation of our understanding of the history of this translation. (15) Based on epigraphical evidence, Desai identified the patron as Malik Nasir, the fief-holder (muqta') of the province of Bihar during the reign of Mahmud Shah Sharqi (844-62/1440-57). (16) He assigns an approximate dating of the translation to 1446. (17)

A major consequence of an earlier, fifteenth-century dating is that the Persian translation of the Hitopadesa then coincides with the budding development of Hindi language and literature. The translator of the BNF manuscript, Taj al-Din, identifies the language from which the translation was made as Hindavi--it is thus possible, or even likely, that it was not a Sanskrit version, as may have been assumed. Reference to Hindi or Hindavi in a Persian text can indicate Sanskrit, but more frequently a variety of Hindi dialects spoken across North India. (18) Nevertheless, by the beginning of the sixteenth century--dated to 1506 by an author named Chanda--a Hindi version of the Hitopadesa did exist, (19) as well as a sixteenth-century Hindi version, written in fifty-two episodes and entitled Hitopadesa upakhyana bawani, completed by Agradasa (fl. 1575). (20)

Although the fifteenth-century development of Hindi remains rather obscure, the few fifteenth-century Hindi translations of Sanskrit texts that we do know about are significant. It was in this period that Visnudas, the court poet to the Gwalior ruler Dungarendra Singh, composed Hindi versions of the two great Sanskrit epic masterpieces: Pandav-carit of the Mahabharata, dated to 1435, and Ramayan-katha, based on the Ramayana of Valmiki, in 1442. (21) Gwalior fostered a growing culture of Hindi literature when the Tomara Rajput dynasty (r. 1398-1518) patronized an effort to "modernize" the "venerable traditions" of Sanskrit for new social and political contexts. (22) In another context, not far from Gwalior and Jawnpur, Hindi literature found a...

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