Dara Shikoh’s Quest for Spiritual Unity
Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the Mughal Emperor of India, Shah Jahan, and heir apparent to his throne, was born near Ajmer in 1615 C.E.. It is said that before Dara’s birth, Shah Jahan had paid a visit to the tomb of the great Chishti Sufi mystic, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer and there had prayed for a son to be born to him, since all his earlier children had been daughters. Thus, when Dara was born great festivities were held in Delhi, the imperial capital, for the Emperor now had an heir to succeed him to the throne.
Like any other Mughal prince, Dara’s early education was entrusted to maulvis attached to the royal court, who taught him the Qur’an, Persian poetry and history. His chief instructor was one Mullah Abdul Latif Saharanpuri, who developed in the young Dara an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the speculative sciences, including Sufism. In his youth, Dara came into contact with numerous Muslim and Hindu mystics, some of whom exercised a profound influence on him. Dara’s close and friendly interaction with them led him to seek to establish bridges of understanding between Sufism and Hindu mysticism.
In pursuit of this aim, Dara now set about seeking to learn more about the religious systems of the Hindus. He studied Sanskrit, and, with the help of the Pandits of Benaras, made a Persian translation of the Upanishads, which was later followed by his Persian renderings of the Gita and the Yoga Vasishta. Throughout this endeavour, his fundamental concern was the quest for the discovery of the Unity of God (tauhid), seeking to draw out the commonalities in the scriptures of the Hindus and the Muslims.
Dara expresses this concern in his Persian translation of the Upanishads, the Sirr ul-Akbar (‘The Great Secret’) thus:
And whereas I was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostic doctrines of every sect and to hear their lofty expressions of monotheism and had cast my eyes upon many theological books and had been a follower thereof for many years, my passion for beholding the Unity [of God], which is a boundless ocean, increased every moment. [.] Thereafter, I began to ponder as to why the discussion of monotheism is so conspicuous in India and why the Indian [Hindu] mystics and theologians of ancient India do not disavow the Unity of God, nor do they find any fault with the Unitarians.
Dara’s works are numerous, all in the Persian language, only some of which are readily available today. His writings fall into two broad categories. The first consists of books on Sufism and Muslim saints, the most prominent of these being the Safinat ul- Auliya, the Sakinat ul-Auliya, the Risala-i Haq Numa, the Tariqat ul-Haqiqat, the Hasanat ul-’Arifin and the Iksir-i ‘Azam. The second consists of writings such as the Majma ul-Bahrain, the Mukalama-i Baba Lal Das wa Dara Shikoh, the Sirr-i Akbar and his Persian translations of the Yoga Vashishta and the Gita.
In the Hasanat ul-’Arifin, Dara bitterly criticises those self-styled ‘ulama who, ignoring the inner dimension of the faith, focus simply on external rituals. His critique is directed against mindless ritualism emptied of inner spiritual content, and he challenges the claims of the ‘ulama who would readily trade their faith for worldly gain. Thus, he says:
May the world be free from the noise of the Mulla
And none should pay any heed to their fatwas.
As for those ‘ulama who claim to be religious authorities but have actually little or no understanding at all of the true spirit of religion, Dara writes that, ‘As a matter of fact, these are ignoramuses to themselves and learned to the ignorant’, and adds the following couplet:
Every prophet and saint suffered afflictions and torments,
Due to the vicious and ignominious conduct of the mulla.
Two short, yet important, works of Dara on the various stages and practices associated with the Sufi path are the Tariqat ul-Haqiqat and the Risala-i Haq Numa. The former consists of both prose as well as poetry. It begins with a prologue containing the praises of God and His Omnipotence and His All-Pervasiveness. Thus, Dara says, referring to the Divine:
You dwell in the Ka’aba and in Somnath [a famous Shaivite Hindu temple]
And in the hearts of the enamoured lovers.
The text goes on to discuss the thirty stages (manazil) on the Sufi path, the first of which is detachment from the materialistic world and the last of which is realisation of the Truth. Broadly the same theme is discussed in the Risala-i Haq Numa, where the seeker (salik) is shown as starting from the Alam-i Nasut or ‘The Physical Plane’, and, passing through various stages, finally reaching the Alam-i Lahut or ‘the Plane of Absolute Truth’. Some of the physical exercises employed by the Sufis that are described in the Risala-i Haq Numa are shown by Dara to be similar to those used by the Hindu Tantriks and Yogis. These include astral healing and concentration on the centres of meditation in the heart and brain. Further, he suggests that the four planes through which the Sufi seeker’s journey takes him-Nasut , Jabrut, Malakut and Lahut-correspond to the Hindu concept of the Avasthanam or the four ‘states’ of Jagrat, Swapna, Shushpati and Turiya.
Dara On The Religious Systems of the Hindus
Dara wrote extensively on the religious systems of the Hindus, following in the tradition of several Muslim mystics and scholars before him. Like several Sufis before and after him, saw the possibility of some religious figures of the Hindus having been actually been prophets of God, and certain Hindu scriptures as having been of divine origin. Thus, for instance, he writes in the Sirr-i Akbar that a strong strain of monotheism may be discerned in the Vedas and opines that the monotheistic philosophy of the Upanishads may be ‘in conformity with the Holy Qur’an and a commentary thereon’.
In his quest for an empathetic understanding of the Hindu religious systems, Dara spent many years in the study of Sanskrit, and for this purpose employed a large number of Pandits from Benaras. Several contemporary Sanskrit scholars praise him for his liberal patronage of the language. Prominent among these was Jagannath Mishra, who, it is said, was once weighed against silver coins at Shah Jahan’s command and the money given to him. He was the author of the Jagatsimha, a work in praise of Dara.Other Sanskrit scholars who were patronised by Dara included Pandit Kavindracharya, who was granted a royal pension of two thousand rupees, and Banwali Das, author of a historical work on the kings of Delhi from Yudhishtra, a key figure of the epic Mahabharata, to Shah Jahan, for which he was honored by Shah Jahan with the title of Sarvavidyanidhana.
The most well-known of Dara’s several works on the religious sciences of the Hindus is his Majma ul-Bahrain (‘The Mingling of the Two Oceans’). Completed when Dara was forty two years old, this book is a pioneering attempt to build on the similarities between Sufism and certain strands of Hindu monotheistic thought, and it is these two that the ‘two oceans’ in the book’s name refer to. He describes this treatise as ‘a collection of the truth and wisdom of two Truth-knowing groups’. It is, in terms of content, rather technical, focussing on Hindu terminology and their equivalents in Islamic Sufism. The basic message that this book conveys is summed up in Dara’s own words thus: ‘Mysticism is equality’, and, he adds, ‘If I know that an infidel, immersed in sin, is, in a way, singing the note of monotheism, I go to him, hear him and am grateful to him’.
The Majma-ul Bahrain is divided into twenty-two sections, in each of which Dara seeks to draw out the similarities between Hindu and Sufi concepts and teachings. One of Dara’s earliest attempts at translation was his rendering of the Gita into Persian. Keenly interested as he was in the philosophy of Yoga, Dara also had the Yoga Vasishta, one of the earliest Sanskrit texts on Yoga, translated into Persian.
Dara established close and cordial relations with mystics from various backgrounds. Among these were several jogis and sadhus, about some of whom Dara also wrote. One such sadhu was Baba Lal, follower of the renowned Sufi-Bhakti saint Kabir and founder of a small monotheistic order named after him as the Baba Lalis. Many of the teachings of this sect can be traced to a distinct Sufi influence. A summary of these teachings is to be found in Dara’s Makalama Baba Lal wa Dara Shikoh, which consists of seven long conversations between the Baba and Dara held in Lahore in 1653 C.E.. These seven discourses were composed originally in Hindawi, and were later translated into Persian by Dara’s chief secretary, Rai Chandar Bhan. As in the case of Dara’s translation of the Yoga Vasishta, this text focuses particularly on certain similarities in the teachings of Hindu and Muslim mystics.
The great interest that Dara had in exploring monotheistic strands in Hindu philosophy led him, finally, to translate fifty-two Upanishads into Persian. The text that he prepared, the Sirr ul-Akbar (‘The Great Secret’) was completed in 1067 A.H. / 1657 C.E.. Here, he opines that the ‘great secret’ of the Upanishads is the monotheistic message, which is identical to that on which the Qur’an is based.
Dara then proceeds to detail the purpose behind translating the Upanishads. He writes that in the year 1050 A.H. he visited Kashmir, and there he met Hazrat Mullah Shah, whom he describes as ‘the flower of the Gnostics, the tutor of the tutors, the sage of the sages, the guide of the guides, the Unitarians accomplished in the Truth’. Thereafter, he says, he was filled with a longing to ‘behold the Gnostics of every sect and to hear the lofty expressions of monotheism’. Hence, he says, he began his search for monotheism in other scriptures as well, including the Torah of the Jews (Taurat), the Gospels of Jesus (Injil) the Psalms of David (Zabur), and, in addition, the books of the ancient Hindus. He notes with approval the fact that certain Hindu ‘theologians and mystics’ (‘ulama-i zahiri wa batini) actually believe in One God, but laments that ‘the ignoramuses of the present age’, who claim to be authorities in matters of religion, have completely distorted this fundamental truth. His search for traces of monotheism in the religious systems of the Hindus stems, he says, from his faith in the Qur’an, which states that God has, from time to time, sent prophets to all peoples to preach the worship of the One. Thus, he goes on to add:
And it can also be ascertained from the Holy Qur’an that there is no nation without a prophet and without a revealed scripture, for it has been said: ‘Nor do We chastise until We raise an apostle’ [Qur'an: XVII, 15]. And in another verse: ‘And there is not a people but a warner has gone among them’ [Qur'an: XXXV, 24]. And at another place: ‘Certainly we sent our apostles with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the Measure’ [Qur'an: LVII, 25].
Accordingly, says Dara, he travelled to Benaras in 1067 A.H., where he assembled several leading Sanskrit Pandits to translate the Upanishads, in an effort to draw out from the scriptures of the Hindus the hidden teachings on monotheism which are, he says, ‘in conformity with the Holy Qur’an’. Having explored the teachings of the Upanishads, he writes that they are ‘a treasure of monotheism’, although, he notes, ‘very few are conversant with this, even among the Hindus’. Hence, he says, there is an urgent need to bring to light this ‘Great Secret’ so that the Hindus can learn the truth about monotheism as contained in their own scriptures and, in addition, Muslims, too, can be made aware of the spiritual treasures that the Upanishads contain. He goes so far as to accord the Upanishads, in their original forms, the status of divinely revealed scriptures, claiming that the Qur’anic verse which speaks about a ‘protected book’, which ‘none shall touch but the purified ones’ [Qur'an: LVI, 77-80] literally applies to them, because some of the verses of the Qur’an are to be found in their Sanskrit form therein.
The Emperor Shah Jahan’s serious illness in l657 C.E. was the signal of a war of succession among his sons. Aurangzeb grabbed the throne in 1658, and had his father imprisoned in the fort at Agra, where he died eight years later. He then ordered the execution of Dara, who, as Shah Jahan’s eldest son, was considered to be the rightful heir to the throne. Although the conflict between the two may actually have been, at root, political, it was sought to be given a religious garb. Dara was accused by Aurangzeb and some ‘ulama attached to the royal court of infidelity and heresy. Accordingly, he was executed under a royal decree issued by Aurangzeb in 1659 C.E.. He lies buried, a forgotten hero, in a nondescript grave in the tomb complex of the Emperor Humayun in Delhi.
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