Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Political Advice, Translation, and Empire in South Asia

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Political Advice, Translation, and Empire in South Asia

Article excerpt


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. …

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