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Here, intellectual engagement transcended identities in the name of knowledge.
The idea of Varanasi is overdetermined with symbolism. Each story comes with its distinctive mix of sin and redemption. I recently had occasion to think of a forgotten Varanasi project, perhaps of interest to a handful of scholars, if that. This was the project of Varanasi, amongst other places, as a site of intellectual modernity, recently brilliantly recovered for us by Jonardon Ganeri’s The Lost Age of Reason.
I was thinking of the project in the context of a rather perplexing conundrum. I was teaching two texts back to back: Iqbal’s dazzling book, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, and Sri Aurobindo’s ambitious The Human Cycle. One of the questions emerging from the discussion was this. These are works of breathtaking ambition. They have a philosophy of history, they deeply engage with Western thinkers like Nietzsche and Bergson, they synthesise reason with other aspects of the human personality, and they wrestle with questions of community and humanity. They engage with the whole world.
But they do not engage the traditions adjacent to them. It is almost as if, except for a cursory reference to idolatry, Hindu thought does not exist for Iqbal, and Islam does not for Aurobindo.
This is all the more surprising because the philosophical ground they occupied, a discussion of being and reason, could have been amenable to such a dialogue. After all, both are talking to Nietzsche. Aurobindo was later to say that he could have engaged with Islam if he knew Persian, and that Sufi philosophy could perhaps provide a philosophical meeting ground. Sufism was, of course, precisely the philosophical stance Iqbal criticised.
But the larger puzzle is this: why, despite an extraordinary coexistence of Hinduism and Islam, is their mutual philosophical engagement so meagre? Carl Ernst has laboriously documented Persian translations of yoga and other texts, and there are scattered references to Islamic thinking in Sanskrit texts. But the scale of deep conceptual engagement has remained surprisingly modest on all sides. Whatever the engagement between Hinduism and Islam at the vernacular level, at the level of philosophical thought, these were like the banks of two rivers running parallel but not destined to meet.
There is of course one major exception to this, which involves the first “Varanasi project”. This was Dara Shikoh’s work with Banaras pandits to translate, among other things, all the Upanishads. Much can be written about Dara Shikoh’s enterprise. But two claims about it were striking. The first, as Ganeri points out, was the deep philosophical engagement: the Upanishads were to be used to interpret and reveal the truth of the Quran.
The second claim, embodied in his masterwork, Majma al-Bahrain (the meeting of two continued…