New book brings to fore Mughal prince Dara Shukoh’s interest in Hindu texts

A new biography refers to the Mughal prince as a philosopher prince who deeply trusted Hindu texts

Dara Shukoh
Dara Shukoh was a philosopher prince who spent most of his time with Sufi saints and Hindu ascetics

Dara Shukoh, the eldest son of Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal and had an abiding interest in Hindu texts and philosophy, had gone to the extent of identifying the Upanishads with the “hidden book” mentioned in the Quran, a new biography of the prince written by Supriya Gandhi, daughter of Rajmohan Gandhi, reveals.

“Shukoh’s interpretation sweeps aside traditional explications of the verse which either identify the hidden book with the Preserved Tablet, that is, the archetype of God’s words inscribed upon a heavenly tablet which has not been sent down to earth,” Gandhi writes in the biography, The Emperor who Never Was, published in June by Harvard University Press.

Many of the revelations in the new biography go against the contemporary narratives of the Mughal rulers being Hindu-haters who destroyed temples and tried to erase Hinduism from many parts of their sprawling empire. While many temples were indeed defaced or destroyed, mostly to announce authority, there is convincing proof that the Mughal rulers treated many Hindu ascetics with respect, some of whom were even on their payroll.

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Dara Shukoh was a philosopher prince who spent most of his time with Sufi saints and Hindu ascetics, trying to figure out the meaning of life and divinity.

His interpretation of Hinduism comes in his book Sirri-i-Akbar, which itself means ‘Greatest Secret’. After intense analysis, Dara came to the conclusion that among all sacred celestial texts, the oldest were a collection of the four Vedas which were revealed to the pure one (safi) of God, Adam, the first human and progenitor of all humanity.

“In Dara’s telling, Sanskrit represents the original, primal language of humanity. According to Dara, the Upanishads represented a distillation of the Vedas and contained the ancient secrets of mystical knowledge and pure original monotheism,” Gandhi writes.

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In the glossary of about 114 Sanskrit terms in Sirri-i-Akbar, the syllable ‘Om’ is interpreted as Allah. An explanatory note adds that it is the same as pranava, another word for ‘Om’ that means the “ender of secrets.” Brahma, the Hindu deity, is the same as archangel Jibril who transmitted the revelations to Prophet Mohammed, Vishnu is the angel Mikail and Mahesh the angel Israfil. Brahmaloka, the abode of Brahma, is the farthest lote tree, which is Jibril’s abode referenced in the Quran, according to Dara’s interpretation.

Gandhi’s biography is immaculately researched and her knowledge of Persian has clearly helped in accessing original Persian materials, including Data’s letters, from libraries spread across the world, including Harvard, Cambridge, Maulana Azad Library at Aligarh Muslim University, and the India Office library.

Dara’s search for meaning and “divine unity” in Indian texts started after the Torah, Gospel and the Psalms failed to satisfy him. His Sirri-i-Akbar is the Persian translation of the Sanskrit original of Upanishads and most of it is commentary which tried to “enfold it within an Islamic framework.” So a deva (god) becomes either and angel (firishta) or a spiritual guardian (muwakkal), and so on. Dara also uses Yoga Upanishads that assimilate hatha yogic practices.

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His earlier book, the Haqqnuma, used yogic practices into an Islamic framework. In one of his books, Dara writes about the high regard he had for Indian mystics and had held many conversations with such mystics who “have attained perfection and have reached the extremities of ascetic practice.”

Despite having demolished temples, some of it soon after commissioning the Taj Mahal, Shah Jahan also held close relations with Hindu preachers and mystics from Benares, mostly in the 1650s. One of them was Baba Lal who finds mention in some of Dara’s books. Another was Kavindracharya.

Most of such pandits were also on the Mughal payroll or were recipients of generous gifts, especially from Dara. Pandit Kavindra was among Dara’s interlocutors, and in January 1656, he received a gift of Rs. 1,000 from Dara, for instance. Kavindra also introduced Dara to another Benares-based pandit, Brahmendra Saraswati, to whom Dara wrote a letter of high praise in Sanskrit.

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So unlike what is commonly perceived, the Mughal court during the time of Shah Jahan and later maintained close contacts with Hindu scholars. Gandhi quotes former Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Murli Deoras as telling Saed Naqvi, in an interview, that the RSS is willing to see Dara Shukoh as a hero, “but the Muslim community did not allow him to live.” The Mughal prince, who virtually ruled the empire as the favourite eldest son of Shah Jahan, paid the price for his close contact with Hinduism. He could not ascend the throne as he was defeated by Aurangzeb in the fight for succession, and was beheaded.

Aurangzeb’s victory over Dara Shukoh in 17th century laid the foundation of the lasting and deep Hindu-Muslim divide in the subcontinent, according to many historians and commentators. Poet Mohammed Iqbal saw Aurangzeb as a ruler sent by God to save Muslims. Today, in India, just as Aurangzeb’s name is wiped out from even road signage, in Pakistan “Dara has almost been wiped out from history books.”

(The writer is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)

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