Senior RSS leader Krishna Gopal at a recent symposium in Delhi said that if India’s Jews, Parsis, Jains and Buddhists feel secure, we must ask why Muslims “who ruled the country for 600 years are afraid”.
The RSS leader was speaking at an event organised to mark the death anniversary of Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. He further said that had Dara Shikoh been the Mughal emperor in place of Aurangzeb, Islam would have “flourished more” in India.
Coming from a senior RSS functionary, these statements indicate an interest within the organisation to build a new narrative of Hindu-Muslim unity, and Dara Shikoh can offer the perfect starting point.
India today has more than 18 crore Muslims – these Muslims or their families chose India as their home on 15 August 1947. This country is as much theirs as anyone else’s.
However, disruptive forces active across the borders, and organisations and individuals with pernicious agenda have constantly tried to stoke discontent by tapping and essentialising the Muslim identity of Indians.
These forces in the past have succeeded in sowing the seeds of confusion in the minds of young Muslims by using certain icons and narratives – Jinnah, two-nation theory, Wahabism and Islamic brotherhood are some examples.
Given that India has the third-largest Muslim population in the world, it is imperative that it counters these narratives with its own icons who draw strength from its unique local ethos and value systems.
Redefine Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb
Over the years, the narrative of composite culture – often referred to as the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb – has found an odd set of advocates. There are leaders who believe that celebrating iftaar during Ramzan will convince Muslims that their interests would be taken care of. This brand of tokenism has failed to yield dividends in the last 70 years.
Today, the narrative of composite culture merely serves to hide the fact that the chasm between Hindus and Muslims is so deep that even minor incidents have the potential to snowball into communal riots. The old definitions of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb need to be updated and upgraded.
Missing in this picture is a new spiritual and ideological foundation that can hold up and strengthen the idea of unity between Hindus and Muslims. A foundation that goes beyond trite aphorisms, and identifies and celebrates the shared history, arts, literature and politics.
Mughal prince Dara Shikoh exemplifies this syncretic Indian culture. He was a leader, an artist, a writer, a thinker and a scholar whose unique approach towards Hindus and Muslims has led modern-day scholars to hypothesise that Indian history would have been different had he been the emperor of the Mughal kingdom.
Dara Shikoh stands out as a Mughal prince who was rooted in the Indian knowledge tradition – a truth-seeker who tried finding commonalities between the Hindu and Islamic spiritual traditions, and initiated a healthy debate and a dialogue between the two faiths.
He was appointed as the subedar by Shah Jahan and was believed to be the favoured choice for the Mughal crown. Dara was defeated by his younger brother Aurangzeb in the Battle of Samugarh on 29-30 May 1658 and was killed a year later on 9 September. Aurangzeb used the heresy argument to counter the overwhelming popularity of Dara. According to French traveller Francois Bernier, Dara was dressed in rags, tied to an elephant and paraded in the city before being killed.
Two brothers & contrasting views
The two brothers, Dara and Aurangzeb, had contrasting personalities. Dara was a devout Muslim, but tried understanding the Indian tradition. Aurangzeb used an orthodox version of Islam to persecute people, including his own brother, and unleashed a reign of terror. Ample evidence of this exists in his execution of ninth Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadur, levying jazia on non-Muslims and imposition of Sharia law.
Several attempts have been made in the past to project Aurangzeb as an effective king and gloss over the religious tyranny unleashed by him, with some even going so far as to claim that he actually ‘protected’ temples. These might look like harmless academic meanderings but they do, unintentionally perhaps, stifle liberal voices in Islam.
Consider for a moment the possibility of Dara Shikoh as the Mughal emperor. To begin with, Hindu-Muslim unity would have gained an organic ideological and spiritual foundation, and become an integral part of Indian life.
In the long run, the Mughal Empire would have likely flourished more under the umbrella of this spiritual and ideological unity, making it hard for the Europeans to gain a foothold in India. Further, the disastrous ‘Two-Nation Theory’ would have been no match for a more grounded narrative of Hindu-Muslim unity.
The liberal face of Islam
Dara believed in the existence of a single divine power, who is called by different names – Brahm or Noor. He followed the Qadri tradition of Sufism and believed in interfaith dialogues. Benaras and Allahabad played an important role in his spiritual journey. Dara wrote many treaties, but his two books Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Confluence of Two Seas) and Sirr-e-Akbar (The Greatest Mystery) started a dialogue among the intelligentsia of that time. Majma-ul-Bahrain was the first such book to offer a comparative study of Dharma Shastra and Quran to formulate a new vision for society.
In Sirr–e-Akbar, Dara translated Upanishads into Persian language – the West was introduced to these translations through Bernier. Dara, in the book, says that the ‘hidden book’ (Kitab-al-Maknoon) mentioned in Quran is nothing but Upanishads.
Throughout his life, Dara interacted with people from different religions as well as Sufi saints – from Kabir panthis to Muhibullah Allahabadi and Mullah Shah Badakshi, among others.
But efforts to give this icon of Indian syncretic culture his rightful place on the liberal wall-of-honour have been resisted by those who are quick to defend Aurangzeb. They try to fit Dara within the myopic good vs bad binary. What we instead need is a past vs future analysis. While Aurangzeb’s orthodoxy was legitimised in the past, it is Dara Shikoh’s liberalism that needs to be recognised by future generations.
Let it be said in unequivocal terms that for this era, Dara Shikoh has the potential to become the guiding light for a spiritual and ideological unity between Hindus and Muslims. It’s up to us to follow his lead.
The author teaches Political Science at Delhi University. Views are personal.