"I am happy to be visiting this exhibition which showcases the forgotten prince of yester years Dara Shukoh, the Prince who exemplified an extraordinarily broad vision of cultural synthesis. I think this is most timely and might help us better understand humanity’s eternal quest for peace, harmony and love." - Hon. Vice President of India Shri M. Venkaiah Naidu at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA), New Delhi
Prince Dara Shukoh: A Forgotten Champion of Indian Cultural Synthesis - Need of Dara 's spirit in the contemporary world against Terrorism
Dara Shukoh was born on 20 March 1615 in a suburb of Sagartal lake near Ajmer. It is said that his father, Prince Khurram (later Emperor Shah Jahan), frequented the tomb of Shaikh Muin-uddin Chishti and prayed for birth of a son as his previous children from his wife Mumtaz Mahal, had been daughters. By the blessings of the saint, his prayers were answered (Painting No. l); the child when grew up had unmistakable influence of the teachings of the Sufi saint.
Dara grew into an extraordinary personality, in a way unique among all the Mughal Princes since the foundation of the Mughal empire in 1526. Under the guidance of his teacher Mulla Abdul Latif, he developed scholarly habits and his teacher's Sufistic leanings led him from an early age to study the well-known works on Islamic mysticism and classical Persian literature. When he grew up, he came in contact with many Muslim and Hindu mystics, which played an important role in shaping his mind and outlook. In course of time, his great mission in life became promotion of concord and understanding among the followers of different religions, specially Hinduism and Islam which had a long history of confrontation, and which appeared entirely opposite to each other in their ideals, methods and objectives. At this time when India and a large part of the world is facing the threat from religious extremism, Prince Dara Shukoh's life and works become particularly relevant.
The Prince experienced a radical change in him after his meeting with the renowned Qadiri saint Miyan Mir at Lahore in 1040 A.H. (Sketch No. 22). Miyan Mir initiated him in contemplation and various devotional exercises of the order. A few years later he was formally initiated in the Qadiri order and came under deep influence of Mulla Shah and saints and mystics, both Muhammadan and Hindu.
He now passed his major time in intensive study of mysticism and the philosophy and principals of the Qadiri order. This resulted in the publication of his major works on Sufism namely, Safinat-ul-Awliya (1640 A.D.), Sakinat-ul-Awliya (1643 A.D.), Risala-i-Haq Numa (1647 A.D.), the Tariqat-ul-Haqiqat and Hasnat-ul-Arifin (1652 A.D.). The first two contain biographical account of the Sufi saints and last three contain his exposition of some of the fundamental doctrines of the Sufis. This was a period of intense intellectual activity for Dara.
Another phase in Dara's life is marked by his quest for understanding Hindu religion and philosophy. For this he spent many years in the study of Sanskrit. His patronage to the language was lauded by contemporary scholars and Sanskrit poets like Kavindracharya, Kavi Hariram and others. His approach towards Hinduism was not out of any political considerations; he was a true seeker of Truth irrespective of its source. Thus he not only studied the Hindu mythology, the Vedas, the Upanishads etc., but also the Psalms, the Gospel, and the Pentateuch; for the latter works, he sought the company of the Christian Fathers (Painting No. 6) and enjoyed company of free thinkers and philosophers like Sarmad who was also put to death by Aurangzeb (Sketch No.23).
In his continuous search for Truth, his meeting with a Hindu ascetic Baba Lal at Lahore in 1653 A.D. was quite significant. The seven discourses he had with the saint were later translated into Persian by the Prince's Mir Munshi Rai Chandra Bhan. The work entitled Mukalama Baba Lal Wa Dara Shukoh (Painting No. 8) reveals Dara's genuine interest in the "cosmogony, metaphysics and mystic symbolism of the Hindus."
Dara's sustained researches in comparative religion culminated in his writing a remarkable work known as Majma-ul-Bahrain or the Mingling of the two Oceans which he completed in 1656. In this work, he tried to bring out similarity in many concepts, such as of Divinity, Resurrection, Mukti, God's attributes, Nada, Swargaloka, elements etc. in Hinduism and Islam, and concluded that he did not find "any difference except verbal, in the way they sought to comprehend the Truth", and both "represent spiritual effort of man to realize Truth and God". Strangely, this path-breaking work is said to have cost Prince Dara Shukoh his life as the Ulama decreed that Dara had apostatized from the Shariat, and having vilified the religion of God (Islam) had allied himself with heresy and infidelity, the ground on which he was executed by Aurangzeb in 1659 A.D.
Dara Shukoh's spiritual quest for Tawhid or Unity of God led him to the study the Upanishads, and, with the help of pandits and sanyasis of Banaras, he translated into Persian the fifty-two Upanishads in the year 1657, to which he gave the title Sirr-i-Akbar or 'The Great Secret', as he regarded the Upanishads as Divine Secrets. (Painting No. 14) He came to the conclusion that the "Hidden book" mentioned in the Quran was none other than the Upanishads which he described as "a treasure of monotheism". In support of his views, he extensively quoted from the holy Quran. Yet his statements about the Vedas, Upanishads, and the ancient prophets of the Hindus offended the orthodox Mullas who branded him a heretic, the ground on which he was put to death. Though Prince Dara's search for Truth cost him his life, his was a pioneering effort towards religious synthesis and syncretism.
Prince Dara Shukoh also won appreciation for his Diwan entitled Iksir-i-Azam and his Quatrains scattered in his works. His spiritual guide Mulla Shah, a good poet himself described his compositions as "incomparable and heart pleasing", and the author of Khazinat-ul-Asfiya writes that "his (Dara's) poetry is like the ocean of Unitarianism ... or like the sun of Monotheism rising from the horizon in the manner of his luminous opening verse ...". Besides his poetic accomplishments, he was extremely well read in classical Persian literature. In his works, he has profusely quoted from the poetical compositions of Rumi, Jami, Nizami, Khusrau, Hafiz and a host of other poets.
Despite being preoccupied in the study of various religious systems and writing a number of scholarly works, not to mention discharging the civil and military duties in the capacity of the eldest Prince and governor of provinces, Dara found time to extend generous patronage to many poets and scholars. He himself was a much acclaimed calligraphist (Sketch No. 21), and was deeply interested in the art of painting, calligraphy and miniature painting being inseparable in Indo-Persian Art. His Album which he presented to his wife Nadira Banu (Painting No. 9), contains "Unique specimens of both calligraphic and pictorial art beginning from Akbar's time ... compiled and arranged by the Prince himself", which, as Cecil L. Burns says, "affords a striking testimony to the knowledge of the Prince who selected them".
On 3 February 1655, Shah Jahan formally confirmed Dara Shukoh as his heir, conferring upon him the title 'Shahzada-i-Buland Iqbal' (Painting No. 10) and further increased his mansab which in 1656 was 40,000 zat, and on the eve of the war of succession, he had an unprecedented rank of 60,000 zat and 40,000 sawar of which 30,000 were two horse, three-horse.
Dara had completed his translation of the Upanishads and the Yoga-Vashishta and the Bhagwad Gita had also been translated a year before, and there were no signs whatsoever of the coming upheaval when on the 6 September 1657, Emperor Shah Jahan's illness triggered the longest, bloodiest and most tenaciously fought war of succession. Dara all along fought not for himself but to protect the crown worn by his father from being snatched by his three other impatient and unscrupulous sons - Shuja, Aurangzeb and Murad. Dara was too devoted a son even to think of crowning himself in the life time of his dear father. Despite an early success, Prince Dara and his army suffered two successive defeats on 15 April and 29 May 1658, to a large extent due to the betrayal of some diehard conservative Muslim generals (Painting No. 15). He retired to Punjab, reassembled his forces but his defeat at Deorai near Ajmer (11-13 March 1659) forced him to retreat to Sindh in a most miserable condition, not having even covered tents for his wife and daughters (Painting No. 16). Ultimately he decided to cross into Persia, but when he was near the Bolan Pass, his dear wife Nadira Bano died, having suffered for months most severe privations (Painting No.17). No less unfortunate was that he was betrayed by Malik Jiwan, the Afghan chief of a small fortress near the Bolan Pass, at whose house he had stayed for two-three days, despite the fact that Dara had once saved Malik Jiwan's life who had incurred severe wrath of Emperor Shah Jahan (Sketch No. 24). The ungrateful Afghan handed over Prince Dara, his son and daughters to Aurangzeb's troops on 23 June 1659.
Crown Prince Dara and his son were brought to Delhi on 29 August 1659 and, on Aurangzeb's orders, he was taken out in a procession in a most disgraceful manner on the streets of Delhi seated on the back of a dirty female elephant, with his feet in chains, amidst loud lamentations of the people of Delhi who deeply loved their Prince. The public sympathy for Dara so much alarmed Aurangzeb that he called a meeting of a few nobles and clerics in his confidence who decided to issue a Fatwa stating that "to protect the Faith (Islam) and the Holy Law (Shariat)" and "for public peace and reasons of the State," it would be "unlawful to allow Dara to remain alive." (Painting No. 13)
On 30 August 1659, on Aurangzeb's orders, prince Dara's head was cut off and brought on a platter for his close inspection (Painting No. 18). According to one account, Aurangzeb even sent his brother's head in a box to their father, Shah Jahan, then in confinement in the Agra fort since its fall in May 1658 (Painting No.19). Thus ended the life of the noble minded Prince, a devoted son, a promising scholar, a genuine seeker of Truth and a champion of peace and harmony.
Prince Dara was a good Muslim and the charge of his being a heretic was a blatant lie. Though in personal life he had "supplanted exoteric Islam by esoteric mysticism," he never neglected outward conformity to Islam (Painting No. 12). He held the holy Quran and the Prophet in deepest veneration, regarding the latter as the fountain head of all knowledge, esoteric and exoteric. When commencing the translation of the Upanishads, he took augury by opening the pages of the Quran. In his Diwan, there are numerous verses in praise of the Prophet.
FACT has mounted this exhibition in the hope that Dara Shukoh's message and spirit may again pervade the country, creating an atmosphere of peace, harmony, understanding and mutual respect for each others religion and not Aurangzeb's narrow minded, bigoted approach which left a bitter legacy of discord and disharmony among different communities (Painting No. 20).
Prof. V.S. Bhatnagar (Retd.)
Department of History, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
Former Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
Former Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla