I return to my series on the Indo-Islamic encounter on our subcontinent, and the unfortunate failure of the evolution of a composite socio-religious culture during Mughal rule.
Akbar the Great proved unsuccessful in his noble mission of religious harmony and national integration through his Din-e-Ilahi. He was defeated by the obscurantist mullahs, who by now had veered away from the pristine teachings of the real Islam of the Prophet, and had propounded their own version of it. History tells us, almost without exception, that as political and religious domination get entwined, the clergy gets more and more power hungry and corrupt. Every opportunity of theological interpretation gets directed towards self-aggrandisement, as the clergy arrogate to themselves the final authority for divining the "true" application of revealed religious texts to the exercise of temporal power, which really means politics and governance. It had happened to Christianity centuries ago, and was happening in Islam.
Sufism and its counterpart Kashmiriyat that emerged in the 16th century could have provided the solution to harmonise the ancient, elusive, stagnating, but living Hindu civilisation and the new revealed religion of Islam that was spreading through conquest both east and west. We have the instance of Kabir, for whom Hindus have high reverence, who spent his life time trying to reconcile Islam and Hinduism. He is believed to be an abandoned Hindu child brought up by a poor Muslim weaver family, and became a disciple of the great Hindu Saint Ramanand. He preaches that, "The Hindu and Turk, they both live on the same earth,... they have different names, but are all pots of the same clay"; and that "Allah and Ram are but different names" given to the same God. Kabir adopted the path of devotional worship or what the Hindu calls Bhakti, and openly condemned intolerance and hatred. In my view, it is he who is the genuine modern practitioner of the secularism of the Indian Constitution. I have written about it and proudly lectured about it in India and abroad.
India's secularism mandates a life wholly guided by reason and logic but inspired by love, tolerance and compassion. In another aspect it represents the triumph of science over blind faith which the Prophet of Islam amply expresses, "He who walks in search of knowledge walks in the path of God"; he says and "the ink of scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr". The Prophet, following the message of Archangel Gabriel, places great importance on the pursuit of "ilm", that is knowledge and science, and his respect for "alimdans" (people of knowledge). He stood for science that raises a stream of questions that are difficult to answer, as against a doctrinaire attitude that provides a stream of answers that cannot be questioned.
One can make it even simpler than this, is my own understanding of it. Make as many persons happy as you can while you live, and reduce the sum total of human suffering and pain.
It is unfortunate that a large section of Muslims today have by and large abandoned the search for knowledge and higher education and been wrongly indoctrinated into radicalism and strife. The other section, the one that truly follows the letter and spirit of the Prophet's teachings, has neither the space nor a platform to communicate or propound the real philosophy of their religion.
It is indeed a pity that the Mughals, who gave India an architectural wonder of the world called the Taj Mahal, left behind no equivalent intellectual or spiritual ornament of any permanence for posterity or history. Akbar's successors turned their back on his noble Din e Ilahi project. However, a fresh fount of hope did arise through Emperor Shah Jahan's extraordinary eldest son, Prince Muhammad Dara Shikoh, a mystic and profound thinker. Dara Shikoh, the forgotten, disinherited Mughal Prince, is most remembered in history for his enlightened ideas and conviction regarding the harmonious coexistence of heterodox religious traditions on the Indian subcontinent. He believed with the passion of a poet, in the common mystical unity of religion and culture among people of all faiths, and devoted much effort towards finding a common mystical language between Islam and Hinduism. This made him a heretic in the eyes of his orthodox brother, Aurangzeb, and a suspected eccentric in the view of many of the temporal power brokers swarming around the Mughal throne. Dara Shikoh, the mystic, was a good friend of the seventh Sikh Guru, Guru Har Rai, and was widely respected among all communities. The Sikh Guru did him the great honour of inviting him to lay the foundation stone of the Golden Temple in Amritsar.
Dara Shikoh has left behind a vast anthology of his written work devoted to synthesizing the mystical tradition of Hinduism and Islam. His great work Sirr-e-Akbar (The Greatest Mystery), is a translation of 50 Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian (1657). He speculates boldly that the work referred to in the Quran as the "Kitab al-maknun" or the hidden book, is none other than the Upanishads.
History records his tragic fate at the hands of his own brother Aurangzeb, after a series of betrayals. He was sentenced to death with horrendous cruelty and humiliation but with the approval of the Ulemas who denounced him a heretic and danger to the state. The Mughal Empire was doomed from that day. Not long after, the last Mughal emperor ended up in a British jail in Burma, weeping for two yards of burial ground in India. But Dara Shikoh's contribution towards religious harmony and secularism remain immortal.
The words of another important poet of this era, Iqbal echo the perennial question for which no one has an answer.
"Yunan-o-Misra Ruma sab mit gaye jahan se
Ab tak magar hai baqi namo-nishan hamara
Kuchh bat hai ki hasti mitati nahi hamari
Sadiyon raha hai dushman daur-i-zaman hamara"
(Whereas the ancient civilisations of Greece, Egypt and Rome have all disappeared from this world,
The basic elements of our civilisation still continue.
Although world events have been inimical to us for centuries,
There is 'something' in our civilisation which has withstood these onslaughts.)
As British rule gradually settled into India, both Islam, the erstwhile state religion of a decayed empire, and the retreated, stagnant Hinduism of a conquered society, again underwent churning and change. Religious and caste reservations, separate electorates were discovered as the most potent levers to create both vertical and horizontal divisions in Indian society. The British used these brazenly to keep the population forever divided, and themselves in control. Not merely that, they left it as the most valuable political legacy for their political god-child, the Congress Party, who have perfected it far beyond what the British bequeathed.
Study the performance of the Congress Party during the Independence movement, and thereafter as the longest ruling party of India, particularly during the last decade, and one can only conclude that they have qualified themselves as world maestros in dividing people.
Now, where do the Indian state, society and religion stand today in the 21st century? My views on these must wait for the concluding piece of this series, next Sunday.
(To be concluded)