The Religious and Philosophical Pursuits of Dara Shukoh

That Dara Shukoh would eventually lose the succession struggle through a military encounter was an outcome that was foretold. He tried to fashion himself as a philosopher-king.

The coming of Islam introduced many new dimensions and features into the cultures and histories of various parts of India where Islam reached either through military conquests or through the teachings of Sufis who moved across the country. In an earlier chapter we took note of some of the developments in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that came in the wake of the arrival of Islam in India. This chapter continues that theme across the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Shobita Punja and Toby Sinclair
A New History of India: From its Origins to the Twenty-First Century
Aleph, 2023

As noted earlier, the historian Richard M. Eaton has drawn attention to one very significant and enriching aspect. This is the opening up of India to what he calls the Persianate world. This world articulated itself in a new language and a new script—Persian. One predominant idea that this Persianate world brought to India was the invocation of a particular conception of a universal ruler, the sultan. The implications of this have already been discussed in a previous chapter. India’s long—500 years—encounter with the Persianate world coincided with some very significant developments in the history of India. This period had certain significant consequences. It witnessed the disappearance of Buddhism, the rise of Sikhism, the emergence of the world’s largest Muslim society, the clearance of large acres of forests for grain cultivation, the integration of tribal clans into the Hindu social order as castes and the growth of India as a major producer and exporter of manufactured textiles.

Conventional wisdom sees India’s encounter with Islam and the Persianate world as being a hostile one.That this was not the case is best illustrated through the life of the Mughal prince Dara Shukoh.

Dara Shukoh was born in 1615 during the reign of his grandfather Jahangir. As he was growing up, Dara Shukoh witnessed the uncertainties and the intrigues of the Mughal court. In fact, in the aftermath of Khurram’s (Jahangir’s son, Dara Shukoh’s father, better known as Shah Jahan) failed rebellion against Jahangir, Dara Shukoh and his younger brother Aurangzeb had to be sent to Jahangir as hostages to guarantee Khurram’s obedience.Thus, Dara Shukoh knew, when he was the obvious heir apparent to Shah Jahan, that his path to the Peacock Throne (which Shah Jahan made for himself) would not necessarily be smooth. Dara Shukoh’s eyes were not focused on the throne. He was drawn more towards philosophical–religious ideas of various kinds. He did not lead a military campaign until he was nearly forty, when he was sent by his father to conquer Kandahar.This was highly unusual for a Mughal prince—who all won their spurs in battle as young men, often in their teens. Dara Shukoh’s campaign in Kandahar ended in failure.

That Dara Shukoh would eventually lose the succession struggle through a military encounter was an outcome that was foretold. He tried to fashion himself as a philosopher-king. The first part of the portmanteau attracted Dara Shukoh; it was also the one in which he was better trained and more successful. He became a Qadiri Sufi under the training of Miyan Mir and Mulla Shah. His interests were not confined to Sufism and its esoteric practices. He turned to Hindu religious figures and drew on Indic traditions. Dara Shukoh had many meetings and discussions with thinkers and practitioners of different religious traditions. He himself was a devout and pious man and spoke of having experienced visions in which he had felt the presence of divinity. In the Risala-i Haqqnuma he says:

Here is the secret of unity, oh friend, understand it, Nowhere exists anything but God.
All that you see or know other than Him,
Verily is separate in name, but in essence is one with God.
Like an ocean is the essence of the Supreme Self, Like forms in water are all souls and objects;
The ocean heaving and stirring within, Transforms itself into drops, waves and bubbles….
O you, in quest of God, you seek Him everywhere, You verily are the God, not apart from Him!
Already in the midst of the boundless ocean,
Your quest resembles the search for a drop of the ocean!

Dara Shukoh in his religious and philosophical pursuits was continuing a Mughal tradition. His father, grandfather, and, more importantly his great- grandfather, had in their own times sought the company and the counsel of Sufis, mystics, and Hindu holy men. Dara had an enduring engagement with Indic texts and had some of them translated.This linked him to previous imperial engagements. His aspirations were in tune with a broader imperial ideology that presented the emperor as a spiritual and temporal master in emphatically Indic terms.The Mughals encouraged the translation of works that had existed in Indian culture and tradition. It was one way for them to assert imperial authority.To translate a text that had been read and cultivated in India far longer than one’s ancestors was to establish deeper roots in Indian soil.Thus, Dara Shukoh inherited and used a tradition of fashioning political authority—asceticism and piety—that monarchs in India had used for a very long time.

Excerpted with permission from A New History of India by Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Shobita Punja and Toby Sinclair.