Modern Despots Have a Lot in Common With Akbar, Except for His Capacity to Doubt

For Akbar, however, power was not a drug-fuelled dream, it was a dilemma. As ruthless as he was in its acquisition, so troubled was he by the question of its just exercise.

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Some say that a biographer must be in love with her subject. If so, Akbar and I got off to a rocky start. Far from falling in love with him, for the first year or so of my research, I was more often irritated with the emperor. Akbar was a hugely charismatic figure – commanding, courageous, intelligent – but also, he was a man of all-consuming, ruthless ambition.

As I read more and more about the boy who inherited an embattled throne and built one of the greatest empires that the world has ever known, it became more and more difficult to shake off a sense of uneasy déjà vu. Ruthless empire-building was not confined to the books I was reading; it was all around me.

When I began my research, Donald Trump was trying to ‘make America great again’; as my book when to print, Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to restore the Russian empire had him sending troops into Ukraine; and all throughout, and closer to home, Narendra Modi, the emperor of Hindu hearts, helmed an effort to build the Hindu rashtra

Parvati Sharma
Akbar of Hindustan
Juggernaut Books, 2022.

It seemed to me that I was reading about Hindustan becoming Akbar’s as India became Modi’s, and there were sometimes startling similarities in how the two men built their authority. In brooking no dissent from within, for example.

As the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) chief ministers – with one saffron-clad exception – are made increasingly beholden to their leader for their legitimacy, so Akbar turned his own warlords, once quasi-independent fief-holders, into mansabdars whose authority derived far more directly from the emperor’s own.

Any resistance was squashed: either on the battlefield, as with a clan of Uzbeks headquartered in Jaunpur, a posse of rebellious Mirzas in Gujarat, or discontented Qaqshals in Bengal; or by more mysterious means (an outspoken qazi whose boat sank in a well-timed accident, a reformed rebel killed by “unidentified” men upon a dark midnight). 

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Much as fawning newscasters, op-ed writers and artists celebrate the cult of NaMo, Akbar’s courtiers suffused the narrative, as you might say, with flattering hosannas for his rule. Abdul Qadir Badauni, no fan of Akbar’s himself, describes how “[c]heating, thieving Brahmans… told the Emperor that he was an incarnation, like Ram, Krishna, and other infidel kings”, brought into the world to fulfil a prediction by which “a great conqueror would rise up in India, who would honour Brahmans and cows, and govern the earth with justice”.

Akbar, Badauni concludes with disgust, “believed every word of it”.

So did his ‘bhakts’. Rulers who accumulate great power begin to acquire a reputation for superhuman ability. There is evidence to suggest that as Akbar began to believe himself brought to Earth by divine decree, many of his subjects, too, began to imagine their king supernaturally gifted.

The Akbarnama includes several scenes of farmers or soldiers asking Akbar to pray for relief from drought or excessive rain; other contemporary writers describe women in his court, having prayed in his name for children, or for a child’s health, and now, their wishes fulfilled, bringing Akbar “offerings, as to a saint”. 

Was Akbar not all that great, after all, but only the sort of everyday, run-of-the-mill despot that continues to abound in the world? It is a question I asked myself countless times, and the answer I have come to is this: The modern authoritarian, like the James Bond villain, knows he wants power and what he will do with it – rebuild an ancient glory, restore a pure race. His magnificent plans have no place for doubt.

For Akbar, however, power was not a drug-fuelled dream, it was a dilemma. As ruthless as he was in its acquisition, so troubled was he by the question of its just exercise. The more his power grew, the more he asked himself, what is the just way to rule? And, being an emperor of the 16th century, he sought his answer from God.  

Akbar had a visceral relationship with the divine, as evident, for example, from the logic behind one of his favourite activities: riding mast elephants. Its mind aflame, a mast elephant would attack anything in sight. There is a famous scene of Akbar riding one called Hawai, who is galloping in mad pursuit of another elephant across a pontoon bridge – made of boats, swaying this way and that.

People crowd the banks of the river, wondering if their king has lost his mind. Why did Akbar insist on such a dangerous pastime? He said he wanted to know if he had ‘taken a step… displeasing to God’. If God did not approve of Akbar’s actions, well then, ‘may that elephant finish us’. 

As Akbar’s empire grew, so did his obsession with knowing God’s will. Father Monserrate, a Jesuit in Akbar’s court, writes that Akbar “was always pondering in his mind which nation has retained the true religion of God”. Abdul Qadir Badauni, who is bitterly critical of the emperor, describes him sitting alone on “a large flat stone” in Fatehpur Sikri, his head bent to his chest, absorbed in contemplation. Sometimes, he spent “whole nights in praising God…full of reverence for Him, who is the true Giver”.

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Akbar had lived the first decade or so of his life in Kabul where most of the people he knew were Central Asian and Sunni Muslim. In his 30s, Akbar was ruler of Hindustan from Gujarat to Bengal, father to a half-Rajput son; his empire, his court, indeed his family, contained all kinds of peoples and faiths. And yet. “Although I am the master of so vast a kingdom,” Akbar once said, “and all the appliances of government are to my hand, yet since true greatness consists in doing the will of God, my mind is not at ease in this diversity of sects and creeds, and my heart is oppressed…”

Across cultures, kings are chosen to do God’s will – but with so many gods to choose from, which one was Akbar to follow? With “what satisfaction can I undertake the conquest of empire?” he asked. What if, in choosing the wrong faith, Akbar ended up doing the Devil’s work by mistake? “How I wish for the coming of some pious man, who will resolve the distractions of my heart.”

In 1575, Akbar began to hold theological debates in his Ibadat Khana. At first, only Muslim scholars of various stripes were invited to these discussions; some years later, Akbar threw his doors open to all kinds of opinion: Sunni and Shia, Jesuit and Jain, Parsi and every type of Hindu sect – even non-believers. Which of these men would lead him to the True God – and thus the one true way to rule? 

As claims and counter-claims raged about him, a less imaginative man would have picked one path – indeed, in 1555, the year before Akbar was crowned king, many European nations had adopted the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (the king’s religion is the religion of his people) as a way of quelling sectarian strife. To this day, less imaginative men, at home and across the world, continue to pick one religion or one race by which to define their nations.

It is logical, after all, and simple: as the despot centralises authority in only one person, himself, so he derives legitimacy from only one belief, or only one people. But Akbar chose a different way. Instead of embracing one God to guide him or a chosen people to lead, Akbar cut God out of the equation: the principle for his rule became sulh-i-kul, peace for all. 

So, Akbar does not only dazzle his people with miracles, he offers systematic welfare though agricultural and administrative reforms. He does not only clip his warlords’ wings, he recruits a vast variety of talent, from across his realm and beyond, for the better management of Hindustan. The Akbarnama does not only glorify the emperor but holds him accountable, too; as Harbans Mukhia has argued, Akbar’s “absolute power… gets circumscribed by the responsibility to establish absolute peace among his subjects through the practice of non-discrimination, and to bring about tranquillity and prosperity through paternalistic care.” 

Indeed, it this inversion – from seeking one God’s will to embracing an imperial responsibility for his diverse peoples – that made Akbar ‘the Great’; that anticipated, in fact, the modern secular state. No wonder, perhaps, that those who chafe at Indian ‘sickularism’ are as often full of ill-feeling for Akbar and his dynasty. 

Parvati Sharma is the author of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal and, most recently, a biography of Akbar called Akbar of Hindustan.