Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Learning Interfaith from the Mughals: Akbar the Great (1556-1605)


Akbar was only thirteen when his father died of an unfortunate accident in the palace at Delhi. In his haste to rush down the stairs to answer the call for prayer, Humayun slipped and fell to his death. This sudden turn of events left the newly reclaimed Mughal Empire in peril once again. Akbar, who was born during Humayun’s flight from Delhi after his loss to Sher Shah, was in Panjab at the time of his father’s demise. With no other claimants to the throne, Akbar was thrust into the forefront of an empire in jeopardy. Unlike his father and grandfather, Akbar was an Indian by birth. While his father was hiding in the Thar Desert, in a Rajput fort in Umarkot (now in Pakistan), under the protection of Hindus, Akbar was born to Hamida in October 1542. His education had not gone well both because of the stress of a family on the run as well as his inability to learn to read or write, surely because of dyslexia.

Akbar was lucky to have Bayram Khan as regent in those early teenage years. Under his tutelage the empire was protected form 1556 to 1560. After Humayun’s sudden death, while Akbar was still in Panjab, Hemu, a wretchedly puny but crafty man, quickly attacked Delhi and the Mughal force took flight. An unlikely adversary, Hemu, who was a chief minister of one of the Sur claimants, had to be driven from Delhi after a major victory in what was called the second battle of Panipat. Hemu riding on an elephant, the ‘Hawai’ (wind), took an arrow in his eye that pierced right through his head. Seeing their leader slump on his great beast the rest of the army scattered in confusion. Hemu was captured and beheaded in front of the young victor, Akbar. After this Delhi would not slip out of Mughal hands for another three centuries.

The loyal Bayram Khan was a Shia Muslim amongst the Sunnis. He fell victim to intrigue and betrayal and was provoked into revolting and then killed. Adham Khan, who is the son of Akbar’s erstwhile nurse stepped in and carried on the business of extending the empire and putting down the insurgency in the neighboring states. The legendary Baz Bahadur, who was the sultan at Malwa was defeated and his lover, the Rajput princess, whom the lovelorn Bahadur had serenaded, committed suicide by drinking poison, in the true Rajput tradition. Adham Khan, by now was corrupted by power and felt the wrath of the nineteen-year-old emperor and was flung headlong from the terrace to meet his maker.

Barely out of his teens, Akbar quickly consolidated power and centralized the administration. Ministers were dispensed with lest they grow ambitious and dissident commanders were dealt with swiftly. Unlike any other Muslim ruler in India, Akbar took keen interest in his subjects and Hindu ascetics, like jogis and sanyasis. He was most tolerant of all Mughal rulers and let his subjects practice their faiths without any fear of persecution. He also encouraged marriages between Hindu Rajputs and Muslims. His first and the most beloved wife (first of thirty-three wives) was the daughter of Kacchwaha Rajput raja of Amber (Kacchawahas built Jaipur later). Raja’s son and grandson became loyal lieutenants of Akbar and were treated as nobles. Rajasthan never again became a thorn on Akbar’s side as it had for all the previous Sultans and Emperors.

Akbar never discriminated between Muslims and Hindus and conferred nobility to many, with equal justice in mind. His only failure was one Udai singh of Mewar, whose son, a prisoner in Akbar’s court escaped and fled south. In 1567 Akbar himself marched south and participated in the siege of Chittor. Udai Singh and his son escaped but Akbar continued his siege and eventually occupied the fort. Udai Singh is the founder of the city of Udaipur with the lovely lake, where later, a Jagat Singh built the renowned palace on the lake. For Akbar defeating Chittor was a matter of honor (izzat) and this win effectively sealed his glory in the history of the Mughals. Historian Abu’l – Fazl in his Akbar-nama, recorded the events of Akbar’s rule.

Akbar also undertook the building of a new capital in Sikri (later called Fatehpur Sikri) and planned to move his capital from Agra to Sikri. Despite being married to many wives he was heirless and propitiated his respects to a member of the Chisti family called Shaikh Salim Chisti of Sikri. The Sufi holy man correctly predicted that the emperor would have three sons. The first male child was born to his Rajput wife and was named Salim (later Jahangir) in honor of Chisti. The fulfilled prophesy of Chisti of Sikri also had an important role in his folly of building a new capital in Fatehpur Sikri. After completing his father Humayun’s tomb, he undertook an ambitious plan to build an extravagant palace and other buildings in the middle of nowhere.

Akbar was a keen student of the various religions of India. Sufism flourished and the Bhakti cult as well as the Jain and Sikh followers of Guru Nanak fascinated Akbar. In his mind he formed an amalgam of various religions like Islam, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. He even had Portuguese padres from Goa visit his court to give him a sermon on Christianity. He then sought a religion that encompassed the best elements of the various religions and proposed a new one called Din Ilahi or the Divine Faith. However, he did not vigorously promulgate his new religion and it never gained in popularity, as the tenets were not clearly spelled out. As expected he soon ran afoul with the ulema, who considered his actions blasphemous and a threat to Islam. His half brother Hakim, the governor of Kabul sent a fatwa enjoining all Muslims to revolt. With the help of his Hindu lieutenants Akbar was able to defeat Hakim in Lahore and then made a triumphant entrance into Kabul in 1581. Akbar went on to secure his borders and annex more and more territory. Not only Gujarat, Orissa and Rajasthan were subdued but Kashmir was also conquered. Sindh and Kabul were also under Akbar’s control by 1595. Fatehpur Sikri was having trouble with water supply and Salim, his eldest son was showing signs of restlessness about potential succession. Akbar then chose the security of the fort in Agra, abandoning Fatehpur Sikri. It was during this time that Akbar was busy with extending his empire into Deccan. The assault on Ahmadnagar became confused with the internal threat to Akbar from his son and resulted in a halfhearted attempt and least rewarding of Akbar’s conquests.

Akbar was also an exact contemporary of Elizabeth I of England but was the ruler of far greater number of people in India than the sparse population of England. The population of the subcontinent of India at the end of the sixteenth century is estimated at 140 million people with most of them living in the territory controlled by Akbar, between the Himalayas and the Deccan plateau. Compare this with the population of five million in England and 40 million in Western Europe. Akbar was indeed a true monarch and India with its enormous manpower quickly became rich again.

The benevolent monarch suspended all unjust taxation of non-Muslims. These taxes, called jizya had been collected ever since the Muslim rulers took control of India. Initially the Brahmins and some Buddhists were exempt but later Feroz Shah Tughlaq had made the taxes mandatory for all non-Muslims. Though handicapped with learning disabilities, Akbar appreciated art and music and honored artists, whoever they were. Miniature paintings from his era are considered to be masterpieces and the legendary musician Tansen was his royal singer in his court. Akbar’s reign also began an unprecedented period of political stability in India. A crafty and intelligent minister Birbal is the subject of much folklore.

The emperor’s waning years were mired in sadness. His own son, Prince Salim turned against him. In the year 1600, when Akbar was away, Salim attempted to seize Agra. The father and son reconciled but Salim again declared himself emperor in 1602. Salim murdered the trusted memorialist of Akbar, Abu’l-fazl, when he was sent to Salim to broker a truce between father and son. Akbar finally agreed to have Salim as his successor. However when Akbar died in 1605, perhaps form grief, the question of succession was far from settled. Salim’s son Khusrau was also vying for the throne, supported by the Delhi nobles. The erstwhile history of Muslim rulers with their tendency towards fratricide and patricide was again upon the Mughals.

The filial piety seen for two generations of Mughals would be forgotten and replaced by routine violence prior to each succession. The internal strife, as a result, would be a larger threat to Mughal rule than any external pressure.

– Neria Harish Hebbar, MD
June 12, 2002

Published: http://www.boloji.com/history/011.htm (Copyright)


This song from the movie Jodha Akbar, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, shows the way in which Akbar was influenced by Sufism, the mystical path to God which has remarkable similarities to the Bhakti Hindu movement.

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