Article: Karma-prakr̥ti

Contributed by Jean Arzoumanov

Persian in northern India

This 18th-century painting of East India House in Leadenhall Street, London, depicts the headquarters of the East India Company. Set up to control trade between England and Asia, the Company developed its own armies and administration, and was the effecti

East India House
Image by Thomas Malton the Younger, 1748-1804 © public domain

Persian was the dominant language in northern Indian society until the beginning of the 19th century and was for a long time the sole administrative language in Awadh. It was also the main language used by Europeans and employees of the East India Companies when dealing with local officials, employing a private scribe called a munshi as an intermediary.

The community of language and culture between the Persian territories and the Indian kingdoms created a continuous Perso-Islamic identity, extending the traditional Ajam, the non Arabic-speaking regions of the Muslim world, further to the east.

The use of Persian was particularly strong in the Nawabi realm and was used long after the emergence of Urdu among learned Muslim communities. However, in 1837 Urdu replaced Persian in the Nawabi court and in administration in the North Western Provinces. Even so, the Urdu spoken in Lucknow remained very close to Persian when it started to replace it as a written language.

Dilārām’s knowledge of Persian

A brahmin pandit photographed in the 19th century. Brahmins are the highest of the four traditional castes or 'varnas' of India. Meaning 'learned one' in Sanskrit, the term 'pandit' was used originally for a Hindu brahmin scholar and teacher.

A 19th-century brahmin pandit
Image by W. H. Allen © public domain

The brahmin Dilārām mastered the Persian, Hindi and Sanskrit languages, which sets him apart from the usual method of translation in the previous centuries. In the 16th century the Mughal Emperor Akbar set up a translation bureau, where Hindu pandits and Muslim scribes worked together to produce Persian translations of Classical Sanskrit texts. This seems to have remained the most common way of producing translations in this period.

It is difficult to determine how and where Dilārām learnt Persian. His rather idiosyncratic style demonstrates that his command of Persian was not full, despite the claims at the end of his translation of the Karma-prakṛti.

Even if the many difficulties of the original text forced Dilārām to translate rather awkwardly, too many errors in the translation point to an incomplete education in Persian. The most striking feature is his use of plural forms. Dilārām uses Arabic internal plurals as singulars, adding the Persian suffix - when he wishes to form a plural.

Many other irregularities can be found on every page, making his translation difficult to read. He often uses various translations for a single technical term, further obscuring the overall meaning.

Transliteration of Sanskrit in Arabic script

One remarkable feature of the two manuscripts of the Karma-prakr̥ti is the presence of complete Sanskrit sentences written in Arabic script. The phonetic differences between Sanskrit and Persian make these transcriptions almost undecipherable for a casual reader. However, Hemrāj’s commentary helps gain a correct reading in most places.

On the whole, these sentences show a coherent transliteration system which shares much with previous attempts, such as those of Akbar's translation bureau and Abu’l-Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari and Dara Shikoh’s Sirr-e-Akbar.

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Related Manuscripts

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    Bodleian Library. MS. Wilson 262. Nemicandra. 21 July 1796

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