The Tradition of Indo-Persian Literature


June 7, 2014

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History | Iran

The recent removal of Persian, Arabic and Pali from the list of subjects in UPSC exams has given rise to the question of the validity of these languages.

Article by Rana Safvi | DNA India

The reason for this I fear is the growing ignorance of Persian influence on our literature and history. Considering Persian was the court language for approximately 800 years, can we even begin to think of studying history and our very rich literary heritage without knowing Persian?

As a friend said, can we ever think of removing Latin from Europe? There is a wealth of knowledge available in Persian. Not only were the official records kept in it, history of the time, books on science, theology, leisure activities and literature was also written in it. Many classics from Sanskrit were translated into it, including scriptures such as Ramayana and Mahabharata.


Are we going to be dependent on foreign experts on Persian to come and decode these papers and books that are sitting in the archives? William Dalrymple says in ‘The Last Mughal’ that he came upon this vast source of papers, in the National Archives, related to 1857, which had hitherto not even been studied.  No wonder we have been saddled with only the British version of the “ mutiny of 1857”. It can only be called the ‘First War of Independence’ if we can’t read the version of the Indians themselves.

As Prof SAH Abidi , the first Persian Professor to be appointed by Delhi University said, “with the coming of the Muslims to the subcontinent, Persian, an Aryan tongue and sister language of Sanskrit, came to India, which is the confluence of diverse faiths, languages and cultures and which has a tradition of adopting and blending and then producing a composite cultural unity in diversity.”

He goes on to say that since both Sanskrit and Persian belong to the same family a proper scientific study of Persian is incomplete without studying Sanskrit, yet no University offers the two together! Persian wasn’t just a language it signified a way of life and it gave birth to a composite culture, which we today call the Ganga jamuni Tahzeeb. We can’t just wish it away.

The two great ancient civilizations came together in the subcontinent and produced a cultural synthesis, which has rarely been seen.  In fact Persian has influenced many of our vernaculars such as Bangla, Marathi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati and Kashmiri. I have had personal experience with Marathi where I recognized many familiar sounding words.

Since the Marathas followed the traditions of Mughal administration and military organisations they adopted the Persian terms such as Karkun,dabir, sahib,diwan, bartabi bahali , zakat and in the army words such as peshwa, fauj, qila and sawari. Everyday words such as faqta, fajr are all derivatives of Persian.

In fact such was Shivaji’s love for Persian that he asked his court poet Raghunath Pandit to compile a Sanskrit- Persian dictionary called Rajvyavyavahara Kosha. Even the British carried on the tradition of administration in Persian and the British officers were required to learn Persian.

The contribution of Hindus and Muslims to the development of Persian literature resulted in a unique style called Sabk e Hindi ( style of India). This style finds recognition in Iran too. Most of the Persian grammars and lexicons were written in India & today the Iranians are editing and reprinting them. Munshi ChandraBhan Brahman (1574), a close associate of Dara Shikoh was not only an excellent poet but also a prose writer and held the office of Chief secretary in the epistolary Department.

There are no dearth of Persian books by Hindu scholars but Rai Anand Mukhlis’s Miratul Istilah is one of the first Persian dictionaries to be compiled by a Hindu. Raja Jai Singh’s Zij e Mohammed Shahi on astronomy and astrology and Raja Ram Mohan Roy’s Tuhfatul Muwaihiddin (originally in Arabic then translated in Persian) on religion deserve special mention. Raja Ram Mohan Roy also brought a newspaper in Persian called Miratul Akhbar.

This vast resource of our country and our heritage is scattered all over India in various archives, museums and private collections. We do ourselves a disservice by neglecting them. Sufism in India was a product of the Iranian and Indian influences, with the Indian ‘nirvana’ becoming the Sufi ‘fana’.  Though Sufism didn’t take birth in India but the subcontinent became an important centre for its growth and continues to provide solace and succor to millions even today. The kalam of most of the Sufis are in Persian and are even today sung at dargahs and khanqaahs. There is a wealth of Sufi literature, which is a commentary on the times it was written in, available to us but alas in Persian.

“Sufism is the soul of Persian poetry and our mystic poets have used it as a means of propagating humanism, “ says Prof SAH Abidi. That why it is universally appealing and attracts with both its form and content.

The famous Telugu poet Vemana wrote :

“If the scheme of creation we closely scan

And closely observe the Divine Plan

We find all as brethren of the same clan

As to the same stock belongs every man.”

Sheikh Saadi echoes the sentiment

“All mankind is part of one body

For all humans spring from the same essence of Creation.”

If Fate strikes one part of the body

The other cannot rest

You who stand indifferent to the pain of others

You are not worthy of the name Man.”

Maharishi Devendra Nath Thakur ( the father of RabindraNath Tagore was an ardent admirer of Hafiz. He began his day by reading the Upanishads and the Dewan of Hafiz, He found a unity of thought and purpose in both. On his death bed he asked his followers to sing a ghazal of Hafiz: “Mara dar manzil e janaa’m che amn o aish  chun har dam.”

What brief security have I when momentarily the bell doth cry. Akbar had the Mahabharata and Ramayana translated into Persian to remove the hatred he felt was present between the Hindus and Muslims because of their ignorance regarding each other’s religion, way of life and customs.

Today by neglecting and negating the Persian texts we one again promote that hatred. We read only a selective version of history and culture, presented to us in English by colonial historians who had their own axe to grind and are unable to read the colloquial, contemporary version that was written by Indians themselves, be they Hindu or Muslims in Persian.

Dara Shikoh’s translation of the Upanishads known as ‘Sir e Akbar’ was a milestone in Indo-Persian literature. This was taken by Bernier to France where it reached Anquetil Deperron, who translated it into French and Latin. The Latin version reached the German philosopher, Schopenhauer, who was greatly influenced by it and called the Persian Upanishad, ‘the solace of his life.’ This awakened an interest in Post Vedic Sanskrit literature amongst the European Orientalists.

Dra Shikoh’s  Majma ul Bahrain (The Mingling of the two Oceans) is a monumental work on comparative religion. Its Hindi version is called Samudra Sangam Grantha.Since Dara Shikoh was well versed in both Persian and Sanskrit it is possible he was the author of both. The book Tansen wrote on music called ‘Budh Prakash’ has been lost to us in its Hindi version and the only available copy is the Persian version called ‘Tashrihul Mausiqi’ translated by Mohd Akbar Arzani. Dara Shikoh’s spiritual guide was a mystic called Baba Lal. The questions that the Prince asked the mystic and the answers given to these were noted down in Persian by Munshi Chandra Bhan Brahman and Yadav Das Khatri.

There is such an excess of riches in terms of biographies and texts in Persian, which have not been documented and are lying in various libraries, uncared for, on verge of extinction. We cannot let this language die out in India. Considering the riches we have of Persian literature that we have, we need librarians who can catalogue and take out required Persian manuscripts for researchers of the various subjects written in Persian.

Any language will only flourish if it leads to economic rewards, as an employment generator. And we must create those avenues of opportunities.