Order of Multitudes

Situating Farmuli’s translation of the Jūg Bāsisht, c. 1602 CE

Yagnaseni Datta is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art department at Yale University. She specialises in early modern Islamic art in South Asia. Her research examines the practices of visual translation at the Mughal court, focusing on illustrated Persian translations of Sanskrit texts. Yagnaseni is currently writing her dissertation and working as a graduate curatorial intern at the Asian Art department of Yale University Art Gallery.

In 1574 CE, the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605 CE) convened a translation bureau at his capital Fatehpur Sikri in India. He invited notable scholars to translate Sanskrit texts into Persian. The royal atelier then created exquisite codices demonstrating mastery of the Persian, Indic, and European artistic traditions. One such codex is an illustrated copy of the philosophical account, Jūg Bāsisht, dated 1602 CE. It is currently housed at the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin. The Jūg Bāsisht codex is a testament to the complex negotiation of identity and faith in a polyadic society maneuvered by a minority-ruling elite of the Mughals but sustained through the active participation of concerned subjects carving out their niche in a new political order in Northern India. 

Despite its significance to Mughal self-fashioning, the Jūg Bāsisht remains understudied. The codex invites an inter-disciplinary engagement that resists the artificial categories of “Persian” and “Indic,” “Muslim,” and “Hindu” that structure modern scholarship. This apparent ambiguity that it presents in its multidimensionality continues to discourage art historians from unpacking it since we require knowledge of both Islamic and South Asian visual cultures to examine the Jūg Bāsisht and grapple with the dialectical modes of the Perso-Arabic and the Sanskritic to appreciate the ideological thrust of its images—a skillset that our compartmentalized pedagogical training denies. My dissertation addresses this critical oversight in art history with the support of the Sawyer Seminar Seed Grant. It has allowed me to access the undigitized folios of Chester Beatty Jūg Bāsisht and analyze the text for the first time.

In my dissertation, I examine the relational dynamic between spiritual ascendancy and worldly authority and its implications in contesting societal hierarchies in Mughal India through the lens of the Jūg Bāsisht paintings. I argue that this contestation enabled Akbar and Jahangir (r. 1605-1627 CE) to personate the spiritual charisma of holy men, self-validate by designing imagined connections with past legacies and visually perform a metaphysical quest for the viewer by alluding to the ontological in the corporeal. Widening the scope of this investigation, I position the Jūg Bāsisht images in dialogue with visual cognates drawn from the Timurid, Safavid, Rajput, and Deccani corpus that establish a system of inter-pictorial referencing, creating a sedimentation of meanings. I also situate the manuscript historically by examining textual sources like Vedantic treatises, Sufi romances, court histories, and hagiographies that informed its production and reception.

The Jūg Bāsisht is a Persian translation of the Laghu-Yogavāsiṣṭha, a tenth-century Sanskrit philosophical work by Abhinanda from Kashmir. Organized as a dialogue between the sage Bāsisht and his royal pupil Rām, the Jūg Bāsisht draws from Vedanta (a school of Hindu philosophy that speculates on the sayings of the Upaniṣads, specifically on knowledge and liberation), Yogacara Buddhism (one of two major schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhist thought that outlines the “practice of yoga,” combining Abhidharmic modes of analyzing mental processes with the Mādhyamikan notion of emptiness), and Sufism (mystical interpretations and practices of the Islamic religion) prevalent in the subcontinent from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries CE.

Aligned with the methodological underpinnings of the Sawyer Seminar, I approach the Jūg Bāsisht codex using translation theory as a hermeneutical model. Although applied extensively in literature and linguistics, translation theory has yet to take root in art historical scholarship. Borrowing from Tony Stewart’s application of translation theory to the study of “Hindu-Muslim encounter” in early-modern Bengali Sufi literature, I define translation as a search for equivalence.[1] This reframes the visual field as a study of cross-linguistic art practices as reflections of enduring patterns of identity-making. It also problematizes the notion of “syncretic” art predicated on an unnatural collision of discrete conflicting systems. In this translation mechanism, patrons and artists constantly negotiate with their polyglot, multireligious, and multi-cultural environment to understand it intelligibly in visual and textual terms. Moreover, it shapes the contours of power by considering the creative agency of the translator in relation to the source material.

In my introductory chapter, I compare three versions of the text. The first is the Sanskrit source text, the second is a Persian translation by Nizam Panipati made in 1597 CE under the command of the Mughal prince Salim (Jahangir upon accession to the throne), and the third is another Persian translation by Farmuli in 1602 CE, commissioned by Salim’s father, Emperor Akbar, and kept at Chester Beatty.[2] While several historians and linguists have published extensively on the Laghu-Yogavāsiṣṭha and Panipati’s translation, no one has looked at the Chester Beatty version. In most studies, it is either mentioned in passing or avoided altogether. At the same time, its forty-one illustrations seldom appeal to art historians due to the “abstruse” nature of the text.[3]

Furthermore, the Chester Beatty catalog misattributes the patronage of the codex to Salim due to a handwritten note on its first folio.[4] Thus, people often believe that Panipati’s and Farmuli’s translations are the same. This assumption has also affected how we study the images and place them within the trajectory of Mughal art. Isolating the Jūg Bāsisht from the corpus of Mughal illustrated manuscripts made under Akbar, especially Persian translations of Sanskrit texts like the Rāmāyan, the Razmnāma, and the Harivaṃśa, changes the contextual history of the codex and positions it as an outlier in the course of Jahangir’s patronage.

However, my research into the text squarely places the manuscript under Akbar’s patronage, supporting historian Heike Franke’s attribution.[5] Additionally, I have mapped out some of the similarities and differences between the three texts to understand how they functioned individually and what that might tell us about the intentions of the translator and the reception of Farmuli’s text and the images. Here I present a comparative table of the beginning of each text that contains eulogies of God and the patron, a description of the text and reasons for translating it, and the framing narrative of a student named Bharadvāj asking about the life of the protagonist Rām to his master Bālmīk:

Praise of GodPraise of SalimPraise of Akbar
  v. 1: In the sky, the earth, and likewise in space, both external and internal to me, the lord, one who shines forth resplendently, to that Universal Soul, [I] salute!    p. 2: Sulṭān Salīm Bahādur, who is in the prime of his youth, at a time when the winds of desire blow, the manifestation of perfect carnal pleasures and corporeal desires, is desirous of conversations with theologians    f. 2r: His majesty, shadow of God, the seal of Solomon, protection of the califate, lord of conjunction, Jalāl ud-Dīn Akbar Pādshāh– may God perpetuate his reign![6]  
The Ideal ReaderReason for TranslationReason for Translation
  v. 2: May I, who is entrapped, be set free; of that, there is resolution. Neither endlessly hollow nor knowing, he is this scripture’s rightful claimant.  p. 2: and in these days,  [the prince commanded] that the book Jūg Bāsisht that includes expressions of Sufism and contains accounts of Truth and a variety of morals and remarkable advice and is from the authentic book of the Brahmanical sages of India be transferred from the language of Sanskrit to the language of Persian    f. 3r: The Jūg Bāsisht, among the many books known to the people of India that provide moral advice and wisdom, is renowned and widely obeyed. The imperial order went forth that this wretched person should translate the work so that those who speak Persian but do not know Sanskrit should be able to benefit from it  
Conversation between Student MasterConversation between Student and MasterConversation between Student and Master
  v. 4: Oh, lord, I wish to know how in this world full of difficulties, Rām, for example, lived with compassion; oh lord, speak to me.  p. 12: Oh, instructor of Truth! In this world, nothing is concealed from you; this world is a living trap, a place of captivity and helplessness for the careless. Be objective with me about Rāmchand, with his perfections, external and internal, in this world that is a prison of negligence and ignorance; what kind of life did he live?  f. 3v: Oh, wise master of all three realms, it is my wish to know how Rāmchand lived in this path of the world filled with anguish and hardship

Regarding similarities, both Farmuli and Panipati translate the verses of the Laghu-Yogavāsiṣṭha into prose. They also maintain the overall structure of the source text, like the eulogy, the framing conversation of Bharadvāj and Bālmīk, and though not shown in this table, the dialogue between Rām and Bāsisht and the stories. Later translations, for example that of Qutb-i Jahani, remove the accounts and dilute the text to excerpts and comments. None of these later translations are illustrated. Unlike Farmuli, however, Panipati expands on the Sanskrit text with his explanations and analogies. For example, having praised God and the patron, Farmuli moves on to the text. But Panipati continues by thanking the Hindu gods and asking for their blessings:

Sarasvatī, whose nature is the sea of grace, a charity of knowledge, and inception. She is like every minute and massive drop of the water of the Ganges, and every good and bad that comes to her door to surrender are cleansed.

And from her grace and favor become beneficiaries… from her, I want strength and power in compiling and drafting this book.[7]

Later, he uses the Islamic day of Resurrection as an analogy to explain the cyclical destruction of the world in Vedic philosophy and elucidates on the Vedas by comparing them to the Sharia.[8] Compared to Panipati’s text, Farmuli’s translation seems to follow the Sanskrit version more closely in its concision.

These differences suggest that Farmuli is more eager to narrate the stories—thrilling adventures of the protagonists with a didactic bend that unravels the distinction between dreams and reality. In contrast, Panipati wishes to lay out the philosophical parameters of the text by aligning Vedic ideas with equivalent concepts found in Islamic thought. He provides definitions and introduces characters in greater detail as if to make it easier for his readers to familiarise themselves with foreign notions and figures. Farmuli’s text, on the other hand, expects readers to either already be familiar with such concepts or it prefers not to clarify them in favor of the stories. If we consider the composition dates, such a divergence is understandable since Panipati translated the text in 1597 CE. By the time of Farmuli’s translation in 1602 CE, the generalized meaning of this philosophy may have already been established through several other related translations. Farmuli’s emphasis on the narrative aspects would also explain why his translation was receptive to illustrations.

Furthermore, the prominence of action-packed narratives in Farmuli’s version places it within the orbit of texts like the Rāmāyan and the Razmnāma, extensively illustrated by the imperial atelier during Akbar’s rule as visual and textual cognates. This placement further motivates the contextual history of the codex and decouples it from terms like “abstruse” used thus far to describe the manuscript.[9] Additionally, establishing such differences between the Persian translations in my cross-disciplinary research allows us to appreciate how any data, even systems of data, can be manipulated while being recorded and preserved to meet the needs and interests of the target audience. It also speaks to our ability to extract the nuances of each translation, both textual and visual, and interpret them as intentional acts that add as much as they erase and modify, seldom replicating the “original” in a long history of collecting, recording, preserving, and disseminating visual and linguistic information across porous boundaries over time, resulting in repeated multitudes.

[1] Tony K. Stewart. 2001. “In Search of Equivalence: Conceiving Muslim-Hindu Encounter Through Translation Theory.” History of Religions 40(3): 260-287.

[2] For the Sanskrit text I translate using Vasudeva Sharma Panasikara. ed. 1937. Laghuyogavasistha: Text with Sanskrit Commentary, Vasistha-Candrika, Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass; for Panipati’s translation I use Jalālī Nā’īnī, and N.S. Shuklā, ed. 1981. Jūg Bāsisht (Yoga Vasistha): dar falsafah u ‘irfān-i Hind, tarjumah-i Niẓām al-Dīn Pānīpatī. Tehran: Shirkat-i Offset; and for Farmuli’s translation I use CBL Ms. 05.

[3] Linda Leach. 1995. Mughal and Other Indian Paintings from the Chester Beatty Library. Vol. 1. London: Scorpion Cavendish, 155.

[4] Leach. 1995, 155.

[5] Heike Franke. 2011. “Akbar’s Yogavāsiṣṭha in the Chester Beatty Library.” Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 161[2]: 359-375.

[6] Franke’s English translation in 2011, 363.

[7] Nā’īnī, and Shuklā, ed. 1981, 7.

[8] Nā’īnī, and Shuklā, ed. 1981, 1, 8.

[9] Leach 1995, 155.