With the current controversy over German being dropped in favour of Sanskrit in Kendriya Vidyalayas, India’s noted Persian scholar Professor Sharif Husain Qasmi laments successive governments abandoning attempts to integrate languages, encourage translations and build a better understanding between civilisations, cultures and religions. He was equally perturbed when the UPSC dropped Persian and Arabic from the civil services examination last year. How can English, barely two-and-a-half centuries old in the country, be promoted and not Persian and Arabic which flourished for over eight centuries, scholars like him asked.
Prof Qasmi, 72, has painstakingly compiled a list of 2,517 Persian manuscripts, all translations of Sanskrit works ranging from the Mahabharata and Ramayana to the Upanishads and Panchatantra in his ‘Descriptive Catalogue of Persian Translation of Indian Works’. He speaks of the intense love and passion the Mughals nurtured for India and the cooperation they lent Hindu scholars. In the same breath, he grieves the misconceptions followers of these two religions have, which is being cashed upon to incite communal violence for narrow political gains. He spoke to Pavithra S. Rangan. Excerpts:
Hailed as a seminal work, what is the significance of your Catalogue?
This 500-page descriptive catalogue is a culmination of a 10-year-long effort to showcase documentary proof of the deep, sincere understanding between Persian and Sanskrit scholars in India. Mughals, who conquered and ruled over India for over three centuries, were the first to bring the idea of secularism here. Although the one who wields the sword sets the rules, Muslims in India wanted to learn the ways of Hindus, forge bonds of friendship and live amicably rather than just rule over them. Learning Sanskrit was at the heart of this effort. Persian translations of Sanskrit works in almost every field reveal the respect and cooperation that existed between Hindu and Muslims for 650 years.
Those who incite or participate in communal violence today are disregarding this effort of our forefathers. Religious violence reflects ignorance about the remarkable camaraderie of the past.
During whose reign did the work on translations gain momentum?
Religious violence reflects ignorance of a camaraderie our Hindu and Muslim ancestors fostered, including learning Sanskrit."
Although the first translation of Sanskrit works into Persian can be traced back to the 6th century, a far more concerted effort becomes evident during the reign of Akbar. Jehangir and Shahjahan, even Aurangzeb, continued the tradition and contributed greatly. Akbar’s interest in translating Sanskrit works was unparalleled. He set up a special bureau of translations and employed the best Persian and Sanskrit scholars to translate the Panchatantra, Ramayana, Mahabharata and Yoga Vasishtha among thousands of other works. These translations introduced Indian works outside the country, generating interest even in Europe.
When Al Biruni came to India and sought to learn Sanskrit, it was the time when Mahmud of Ghazni was attacking India regularly. He had done so at least 13 times. Yet, Sanskrit scholars were kind enough to teach him the intricacies of the language. In return, Al Biruni wrote Indica, a comprehensive history of India, in Arabic. This is the most authentic work on Indian culture, sciences or religion. Any research on Hinduism today would be incomplete without its study.
What do these efforts reveal?
The demand for Persian translations of Sanskrit works at a time when the printing press was yet to be invented is remarkable. Even as the Ramayana was being translated in Calcutta into Persian, for instance, there was demand for it in Lucknow, Kashmir and other parts of the country. This led to 51 translations of the epic in Persian. Moreover, this number is limited only to the versions I have been able to trace. Each of these translations of the same epic is significant for the details. It is amazing how not just important works on mathematics, astronomy, astrology and music but even moral fables from different states were translated. There was a sense of integration this caused across the country.
Can languages get communalised and categorised as belonging to a certain community? Did this happen in the case of Persian too?
Yes, this is a pathetic truth. We can no longer understand and appreciate the mutual respect and cooperation our forefathers fostered. Muslims ruled this country for 650 years; there was hardly a disturbing conflict. Not only Muslims but many Hindu scholars also engaged in translating Sanskrit works in Persian. Muslim artists would paint Hindu gods and goddesses to accompany these translations, although they believed in one, faceless God. Indian Muslims even memorised the Ramayana. None of this was a cause of any disturbance. Brotherhood, negotiation and accommodation were the only means employed to resolve disputes. Someone tell this to those inciting bloody violence in the name of religion. It is an affront to our ancestors.
Do non-Muslims still study Persian? In how many universities is the language being taught, how many opt for it?
"Even as the Ramayana was being rendered into Persian in Calcutta, there was demand elsewhere, leading to 51 translations of the epic."
The head of the department of Persian in Delhi University is Prof Chandrashekhar, a Hindu. Many of my Hindu students are today professors and language experts. In DU, where I taught, there were about 50 students enrolled in MA, MPhil and PhD courses. The number is more or less similar at Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia. In each of these universities, there are Hindu, Sikh and Muslim students studying Persian. That apart, Persian is taught in 30 central universities across the country, including Aligarh, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Bangalore and Kashmir. This of course excludes several colleges where Persian is also taught at the undergraduate level.
What is the state of these works and Persian literature?
Manuscripts which are even seven centuries old, some of them with the signature of Akbar as well, have been preserved in public libraries across the country. The Maulana Azad Library, the National Museum, the Asiatic Society library, National Library, Bombay University Library, Peer Mohammed Shah Library, among several others, have safeguarded ancient Persian manuscripts. Hundreds of small personal libraries with a wealth of manuscripts too were extremely useful for my research. These unfortunately get no funds or attention from the government.
What are we losing by not learning Persian?
There are at least three Sanskrit works to my knowledge, including that of Akbar’s court poet Tansen, which are no longer available in the original. While the Sanskrit manuscripts may have been lost to posterity, these works can be accessed through their translation in Persian. Moreover, the ‘Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb’, which we often recount as our common cultural inheritance, is an amalgamation of Indian, Persian and Arabic influences. Even the names of streets in the national capital, from Daryaganj to Chandni Chowk, derive their meaning from Persian. Loss of the language is an irrevocable cultural loss to the nation.
Is there something wrong in how our governments deal with languages?
I see nothing wrong in designating one language, for instance Hindi, in India, as the national language. What is disturbing is the injustice that numerous other languages suffer owing to the government’s negligence. The rich cultural past of Persian and its relevance today have been forgotten and buried. The nail in the coffin came when the UPA government removed Persian from the list of eligible languages in the UPSC. Today, vacancies in universities are left unfilled, there is no interest in promoting research in the language, nor are jobs being created for those who are interested.