Faizi, Akbar and Sanskrit literature

AbulFazl Presenting Akbarnama – Wikimedia Commons (Евгений Ардаев)

The Mughal period in India was a fascinating and intriguing period from the perspective of development and dissemination of Sanskrit literature.  For example, Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan, seems to have personally translated fifty Upanishads into Persian in addition to the Bhagavad Gītā and the Yoga Vasiṣṭa.  It is Dara Shikoh’s Persian translations of the Upanishads which were then translated into Latin by Anquetil Duperron and which thereby influenced European thinkers such as Arthur Schopenhauer.  Reading these Persian translations also directly influenced Sir William Jones to pursue his studies of Sanskrit further.

Although the interest of Islamic scholars in Sanskrit texts began at an early date, with Amir Khusro studying many such texts in the 14th century, this was scaled up hugely during the reign of Akbar.  During his reign, Akbar set up a Maktab Khana or ‘literary institute’ with talented scholars and artists, who translated many Sanskrit works into Persian.  The most ambitious project of the literary institute was to make a complete translation of the entire Mahābhārata into Persian, richly illustrated with miniature paintings depicting the key scenes.  Various copies or partial copies of this work with its illustrations are extant in India and museums around the world.  As Prof. John Sellyer explains –

“During Akbar’s reign  (1556-1605), however, the sporadic translation of Hindu works became a sustained rush … scholars such as Abū al-Faẓl, his brother Shaykh Fayẓī, Badā’ūnī, and Ibrāhīm Sirhindī introduced to the Mughal court texts as varied as the Artharva Veda, a text on magic and rituals, the Līlāvati (The Playing One), a mathematical treatise, the romance of Nala Damayantī, the Rājatarangini, a twelfth-century history of Kashmir, and the Simhāsanadvātriṁśat and Kathā Saritsāgara (The Ocean from the Rivers of Story-Telling), two collections of stories … the translation bureau undertook the translation of Hindu devotional texts such as the Bhagavad Gītā (Song of the Lord) and the Harivamśa (Genealogy of Kṛṣṇa), as well as the Yogavāśiṣṭa, an exposition of Vedanta philosophy, and the great Hindu epics of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyana.

John Sellyer, Workshop and Patron in Mughal India, pp.13-14

Shaikh Abu al-Faiz ibn Mubarak, popularly known as Faizi, was the court poet in the court of Akbar, and the elder brother of Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, Akbar’s court historian, who wrote the well-known Akbarnama.  Both brothers are supposed to have been of ethnic Yemeni heritage, and were among the so-called nauratan or nine jewels of Akbar’s court.  Both brothers were sufis and scholars who, like their father Sheikh Mubarak, took deep interest in the literature and cultural heritage of India.

Based on the prose translation of the Mahābhārata made by the team at the literary institute, Faizi was working on his own Persian verse rendering of this.  However, he was only able to complete the first two books, which is not surprising given the scale of the task.  Indeed, even in the modern era, although many unabridged translations of the Mahābhārata into modern languages have been started, very few have ever been completed.  In addition, Faizi also made a complete verse translation of the story of Nala and Damayantī, as indicated in the above quote.  (In fact, the translation of the Līlāvati referred to by Prof. Sellyer above was also the work of Faizi.) 

Anyway, the story of Nala and Damayantī occurs in the third chapter of the Mahābhārata (Vana Parvan).  It was a popular choice for retelling as a standalone story, also found as the theme of the 12th century Naiṣadha-carita of Śriharṣa, one of the five Mahākāvyas of Sanskrit literature, and in many other works.  The story comes up in the Mahābhārata when the five Pāṇḍavas were in exile and were passing the time in various adventures and telling stories.  During the time when Arjuna was away trying to meet Indra to get the Paśupata weapon, Yudhiṣṭira was feeling rather dejected and asked Ṛṣi Bṛhadaśva –

“Holy one, my wealth and kingdom have been seized in a game of dice.
Having been invited by gamblers who are skilled at dice and dishonesty,
To explain, I am not skilled at dice, whereas they had immoral and dishonest intentions.
And my wife, who is more precious [to me] than even my life, was brought into the assembly hall.
Is there any king on this earth who is more unlucky than me?
Have you ever seen or heard of such a person before?
I believe there is no man who has experienced greater sufferring than me.”

Mahābhārata, Vana Parvan 49:32-34; my own translation

Ṛṣi Bṛhadaśva replies, well actually, there was one such person, and so begins the story of Nala and Damayantī.  In brief, Nala and Damayantī fall passionately in love with each other, and after surmounting some rivalry and trickery from the gods also seeking the affection of Damayantī, they are able to marry.  However, Nala then is similarly coerced into playing a game of dice where he loses all his possessions to Puṣkara, and is forced into exile, in which Damayantī chooses to accompany him.  Unfortunately, Nala decides that his situation is so dire that Damayantī is better off without him, and he abandons her in the forest, where she experiences many dangers and discomforts, and finally lands up at the city of the Cedis.

Meanwhile, Nala meets up with the snake Karkoṭaka who bies him in order to transform his appearance and hence disguise him.  Nala then proceeds as instructed by Karkoṭaka to Ᾱyodhya, where he introduces himself to the king, Ṛtuparṇa and gets a job supervising the royal stables, but continues to feel guilty about abandoning Damayantī.  While working for Ṛtuparṇa, Nala teaches Ṛtuparṇa about horsemanship, and in exchange, Ṛtuparṇa teaches Nala the skill of playing dice.  As a result, Nala is able to challenge Puṣkara to a rematch, and wins back his fortune and also gets back together with Damayantī.

Faizi and the other Moghul scholars were perhaps uniquely able to appreciate the deep thematic connections between these indigenous Indian romances and those independently produced in the traditions of Arabic and Persian literature, such as the story of Layla and Majnun.  What most of all seemed to have appealed to Faizi about this is the romantic aspect of the story, and the way in which love affects the one who experiences it.  Specifically, in Sufi thought, romantic love can be so intense, and even intensely painful, that it destroys the ego and creates something like a spiritual state of consciousness.  Thus, according to an interesting Wikipedia article –

“The love of Nal for Damayanti is portrayed in a Sufi way by Faizi who used the components like junnun, ishq and aql to exhibit his state in love.”


The same understanding of love can be found perhaps in the Indian bhakti literature, and also, perhaps especially, in this story of Nala and Damayantī.  The specific features that appealed to Faizi may include the way in which Nala and Damayantī must suffer for their love, firstly in terms of their emotional state being thrown into turmoil, but also then in a wider sense having to undergo various extreme trials and tribulations.  These are also distinctive features in the Persian and Arabic romances.

As a writer and translator, Faizi was conscious of the expressive power and beauty of language and of different languages.  However, as a Sufi and an admirer of romantic literature such as the story of Nala and Damayantī, Faizi was also conscious of the limits of language and the ultimate importance of feelings and emotion.  We may end with the following couplet that I believe is by Faizi (although I am not entirely sure of the source) –

Now, words and ideas are at an end.
Now, it is not about ‘eyes’ and ‘hearts’.
Now, love has no other purpose.
Now, its love for its own sake.

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