By Roshan Shah
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 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 Sufism. In his youth, Dara came into contact with numerous Sufis and Bhaktas, some of whom exercised a profound influence on him. The most noted among these was Hazrat Miyan Mir (d.1635 C.E.), a Qadri Sufi of Lahore whose disciple he later became. Hazrat Miyan Mir is best remembered for having laid the foundation-stone of the Golden Temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar. After Dara was initiated into the Qadri Sufi order, which he describes in his Risala-i-Haq Numa as ‘the best path of reaching Divinity’, he came into contact with several other mystics of his day, Muslim as well as Hindu, including Shah Muhibullah, Shah Dilruba, Shah Muhammad Lisanullah Rostaki, Baba Lal Das Bairagi, and Jagannath Mishra. Dara’s close and friendly interaction with them led him to seek to highlight the essential sameness or oneness of 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. 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.
Dara on Sufism
The Safinat ul-Auliya, a biography of several leading Sufis, was Dara’s first work, composed in 1640 C.E., when he was just 25 years of age. Here he stresses the importance of the Sufi pirs or guides, because, he believes, one can attain knowledge of the mystical path only through the assistance of a spiritual master. In Dara’s words:
God never leaves his people without saints to guide them. […] Therefore, next to the prophets, there are no other persons than the saints nearer in the presence of God, the Almighty.
The true Sufi is a ‘perfect guide’ (pir-i kamil), for, Dara says, ‘No one is more compassionate and magnanimous, erudite and practical, humble and polite, heroic and charitable than the members of this hierarchy of the saints’.
The Safinat ul-Auliya is Dara’s second biography of various Sufis. Unlike the Sakinat ul-Auliya, which deals with Sufis of various orders, this book discusses only Qadri Sufis. Dara himself was a Qadri, and as he puts it, ‘Nothing attracts me more than this Qadri order, which has fulfilled my spiritual aspirations’. The Qadri order, one of the most popular and widespread of all the Sufi silsilahs, traces its origins to the Prophet Muhammad through the twelfth century Sufi and Islamic scholar of great renown, Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani of Baghdad. The Sakinat ul-Auliya was completed in 1642 C.E., when Dara was 28 years old, three years after his first meeting with the Qadri Sufi Miyan Mir. In the same year, Dara came into contact with another leading Qadri Sufi, Hazrat Mulla Shah Badakshani (d. 1642 C.E.), who, like Hazrat Miyan Mir, exercised a particularly powerful influence on Dara, which is readily apparent in his description of the practices of the Qadris in the Sakinat ul-Auliya.
Dara’s next book on Sufism is the Hasanat ul-‘Arifin or ‘The Aphorisms of the Gnostics’. It consists of the sayings of 107 Sufis of various orders. Explaining the objective behind writing the book, Dara says in his introduction:
I was enamoured of studying books on the ways of the men of the Path and had in my mind nothing save the understanding of the Unity of God; and before this, in a state of ecstasy and enthusiasm, I had uttered some words pertaining to sublime knowledge, because of which certain bigoted and narrow-minded people accused me of heresy and apostasy. It was then that I realised the importance of compiling the aphorisms of great believers in the Unity of God and the sayings of saints who have, hitherto, acquired knowledge of Reality, so that these may serve as an argument against those who are really imposters.
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
And in the hearts of the enamoured lovers.
The text goes on to discuss the thirty planes of 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 four ‘states’ of Jagrat, Swapna, Shushpati and Turiya.
One of the most intriguing works of Dara’s is his collection of poems, the Diwan, also known as the Iksir-i ‘Azam. Some of the verses from the Diwan, given below, suggest the train of Dara’s mystical thought:
On the Oneness of God
Look where you can, All is He,
God’s face is ever face to face.
Whatever you behold except Him is the object of your fancy, Things other than He have an existence like a mirage.
The existence of God is like a boundless ocean,
People are like forms and waves in its water.
Though I do not consider myself separate from Him, Yet I do not consider myself God.
Whatever relation the drop bears with the ocean, That I hold true in my belief, and nothing beyond.
We have not seen an atom separate from the Sun,
Every drop of water is the sea in itself.
With what name should one call the Truth?
Every name that exists is one of God’s names.
On Divine Love
O Thou, from whose very name rains Love abundant!
And from your message rains Love!
Whoever passes through Your street realises
That indeed from the very door to the terrace of Your house rains l love!
On the Mystical Path
Turn to none except God,
The rosary and the sacred thread are but only a means to an end.
All this piety is conceit and hypocrisy,
How can it be worthy of our Beloved?
Kingship is easy, acquaint yourself with poverty,
Why should a drop become a pearl when it can transform itself into an ocean?.
Hands soiled with gold begin to stink,
How awful is the plight of the soul soiled with gold!
Day and night you hear of people dying,
You, too, have to die. How strange is your behaviour!
The more a traveller is unencumbered,
The less he feels worried on his journey.
You, too, are a traveller in this world, Take this as certain, if you are wakeful.
Drive egoism away from you,
For, like conceit and arrogance, it is also a burden.
So long as you live in this world, be independent, The Qadri has warned you!
Whoever recognized this, carried the day,
He who lost himself, found Him.
And he who sought Him not within his own self,
Passed away, carrying his quest along with him.
The Qadri found his Beloved within his own self,
Being himself of good disposition, he won the favour of the Good.
To whatever object you may turn your face, He is in view,
Are you blind, for why do you assign Him to yourself?
Dara on the Religious Systems of the Hindus
Dara wrote extensively on the religious systems of the Hindus. 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 can 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 praised Dara 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, and of the Asif Vilasa, a treatise written in praise of Asif Khan, brother of Nur Jahan, wife of Shah Jahan. 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 42 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. Dara describes this treatise as ‘a collection of the truth and wisdom of two Truth-knowing groups’. It highlights key Hindu terms 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. Thus, for instance, the Hindu notion of mutki, he says, is identical with the Sufi concept of the annihilation (fana) of the self in God. Or, for example, the Sufi concept of ‘ishq or love is said to be identical with the maya of the Hindu monotheists. From Love, says Dara, was born the ‘great soul’, alternately known as the soul of Muhammad to the Sufis, and Mahatman or Hiranyagarba to the Hindus.
Dara’s translation of key Hindu scriptures into Persian represents a landmark in the process of developing bridges of understanding between Hindus and Muslims medieval India, in which the Sufis played a leading role. 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 Vashisht, one of the earliest Sanskrit texts on Yoga, translated into Persian. Interestingly, the translator of the text opens his treatise with praises of God and the Prophet Muhammad thus:
Gratitude, adoration and submission are offered to the One, the Sun of whose glory shines in every atom of the cosmos and where grandeur is manifested in the entire Universe, although He is hidden from all eyes and is behind the veil; boundless benedictions in all sincerity and faith free from error, omission or sanctimoniousness to that choicest product of His creation, to that personification of all that is best, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and Allah’s blessings be upon him, and the same to Hazrat ‘Ali, the object of his love.
The translator then quotes Dara as saying:
My chief reason for this noble command [to have the Yoga Vasishta translated] is that although I had profited by pursuing a translation of the Yoga Vashisth ascribed to Shaikh Sufi, yet once two saintly persons appeared in my dreams; one of whom was tall, whose hair was gray, the other short and without any hair. The former was Vashisth and the latter Ram Chandra, and as I had read the translation already alluded to, I was naturally attracted to them and paid them my respects. Vashisth was very kind to me and patted me on the back, and, addressing Ram Chandra, told him that I was brother to him because both he and I were seekers after truth. He asked Rama Chandra to embrace me, which he did in exuberance of love. Thereupon, Vashisth gave some sweets to Ram Chandra, which I also took and ate. After this vision, a desire to cause the translation of the book intensified in me.
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-Bhagat Kabir and founder of a small monotheistic order named after him as the ‘Baba Lali’. Many of the teachings of this panth can be traced to a distinct Sufi influence. A summary of these teachings is to be found in the 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 Vashisth, 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 52 Upanishads into Persian. The text that he prepared, the Sirr ul-Akbar (‘The Great Secret’) was completed in 1657. 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. The text begins with praises to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad thus:
Praised be the Being, that among whose eternal secrets is the dot in the ‘b’ of the Bismillah [the first word in the Qur’an] in all the Heavenly Books, and glorified be the Mother of Books. In the Holy Qur’an is the token of His glorious name; and the angels and the heavenly books and the prophets and the saints are all comprehended in this name. And the blessings of the Almighty Allah be upon the best of His creatures, the Holy Prophet Muhammad and upon all his family and upon all his Companions!.
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 Varanasi 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, there were also religious underpinnings. 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 sprawling tomb complex of the Emperor Humayun in what is now New Delhi.
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