What great rulers exemplify

Akbar, Suleiman the magnificent and Elizabeth I were contemporaries. They also fit the bill of Plato’s ideal of philosopher-kings, for they carried the entirety of the people they ruled

Written by Rohinton Fali Nariman | Updated: January 18, 2018 1:00 am
great rulers, Buddha, Mahavir, China, Lao Tzu, Confucius, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Opinion News, Indian Express, Indian Express News Akbar, Suleiman the magnificent and Elizabeth I were contemporaries. They also fit the bill of Plato’s ideal of philosopher-kings, for they carried the entirety of the people they ruled (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

The fifth century BC was a remarkable century. We had great thinkers here in India, the Buddha, the Mahavir; in China, you had Lao Tzu, Confucius; and in Greece, you had Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, all at the same time. Plato, in his Book 6 of the Republic, spoke of a utopian city Kallipolis, which would be ruled by a utopian philosopher-king. The utopian philosopher-king, in fact, came about during the great age of the Antonines…

The importance of the philosopher-king is that a ruler when he is merely a ruler, must not carry the entirety of his people with him. A philosopher-king, on the other hand, carried the entirety of his people with him. And the subject chosen for today is three great contemporaries. Historians, after each of their rules, have dubbed each of these people great.

Akbar incidentally means great anyway, and he was an amazing personality. He was contemporaneous with Elizabeth I from England, who was also called great. And Suleiman, 10th in the line of Ottoman rulers, from 1300 onwards, was called the magnificent, something even greater than the great, by the Western world.

Incidentally, the Muslim world called him Suleiman the Law-giver… He ruled from 1520 to 1566. Akbar’s rule started in 1565, and ended in 1605, and Elizabeth’s rule was co-terminus, almost exactly with Akbar’s, ending in 1603.

Now, the important thing about the lives of each of these people is that… they carried the entirety of their people with them.

Akbar was the third in the illustrious dynasty which ruled this country for about 250 years, the Mughal dynasty…. Having established his rule in Delhi, (he) extended his territory to Gujarat in 1572.

In commemoration of which he built the great Buland Darwaza, which you see at Fatehpur Sikri, the great fort that Akbar built… Now, all this conquest was not without purpose. The object was not to come here and be a robber baron and run away with the wealth of this country.

The object was to somehow settle here and rule the nation, the entirety of the nation, as beneficently as possible. And this is where we come to, his great Ibaadat Khana, which was really the first council of world religions. This was set up in Fatehpur Sikri, some say that it was probably in the Diwan-i-khaas… And it is remarkable that people of every faith and hue actually visited and disputed with others or spoke about their faiths, all of which the emperor drank up…

Having listened to all this, he imbibed the wisdom of every great world religion. There were followers of the materialist school which did not believe in anything, beyond existence. Sabians went there — a Sabian incidentally is a Yemeni, monotheist, and they are mentioned in the Quran as people of the book, along with Jews and Christians.

Jews, of course, went there. The Christians had three great Jesuit missions sent to Akbar’s court… He had great reverence for every faith. One of the faiths for which he had tremendous reverence was mine.

A Dasturji called Mayyaji Rana, whom we call Meherji Rana went from one of our cities in Gujarat, Navsari, and somehow or the other impressed the emperor enormously, so much so that he put on a Sudreh and a Kusti also, which is something that we wear, as emblems of our faith…

Another person who impressed him enormously was a person called Hiravijaya Suri, who was a Jain monk… He was also greatly taken up, by a Sufi saint, and ultimately decided in the interest of this nation that he should form a new religion by himself, which he called the Din-i-Ilahi… The reason why this religion did not ever take root in this country and died with him was because even though it was highly evolved, highly spiritual, there was no priesthood, there was therefore no ritual, no custom. Above all you did not have to abjure your own faith to enter this faith…

The emperor was so great that the Muslim maulvis, who used to despise him because of his open-mindedness, ultimately issued what was called the infallibility decree in 1579 which is based on a verse of the Quran that says, if a person is like this, so learned and so brilliant, we will take our spiritual guidance from him… We now come to the second great of our talk, Suleiman the magnificent.

When Suleiman came to throne, he was a liberal philosopher-prince. Again like Akbar, he was a great conqueror…. But his greatness is in being called Suleiman the Law-giver. He was called Suleiman kanooni, and his kanoon lasted for 300 years after him. It was liberal, punishments were reduced, Jews and Christians were treated extremely well in his realm, they were the minorities.

As this ruler was loved, the one great blot in his career was that he married a slave called Roxalena. Now, he was so besotted by this woman he produced four children from her, that she somehow or the other made him put to death his older son Mustafa, who was extremely well-suited to succeed him… But short of this one great blot, this great man ruled for a very long period, 1520 to 1566, and ultimately, died on the banks of the Danube… This man’s reign again teaches us something, and teaches us that a philosopher-king is one who rules for all his subjects and is loved by all his subjects.

The third great ruler now, Elizabeth. When Elizabeth succeeded (to the throne), she was very clear that she had to rule over all of her subjects, Protestants as well as Catholics. And, therefore, despite there being Catholic invasions against her, Catholic plots against her, Catholics were given free reign. That was one very great attribute of this great queen…

In one of her last speeches made to Parliament, another very great speech, she told Parliament that “You may have had many greater rulers than me, but none who have loved you so well, and none who have tried to keep this nation together”.

Incidentally, she did something remarkable to Northern Ireland. She sent a whole lot of English Protestants to go and settle in Northern Ireland. The idea being, that because there were disturbances between Catholics and Protestants, the demographic balance would then be restored, and people would be able to live in peace. Imagine her foresight.

What do these three great rulers exemplify? According to me, they exemplify what is written on Ashoka’s rock edict 12. Ashoka was one of our greatest emperors. On rock edict 12, Piyadasi, beloved of the God, has this to say: Do not ever extoll the virtues of your own sect… or denigrate the sect of others. What you must do is to attempt to extoll the virtues of the other sect and by doing so you increase the influence of your own sect and you make the other sect learn. By denigrating the other sect, you diminish the influence of your own sect… What is important is concord, what a beautiful word he uses, concord…

I don’t think any constitutional lawyer could better put the great quality of fraternity, which our Constitution has. Liberty, equality and fraternity was the cry of the French revolution, if you remember. Each one of them is in the Preamble of our Constitution. Reams have been written, in our judgments on liberty, on equality. Somehow or the other, very little (has been said) on fraternity.

And if one is to live cohesively, in today’s nation, indeed in the world, this cardinal value is of extreme importance. For in the words of the Preamble to our great Constitution, what does it lead to? It leads not only to the dignity of the individual, but the unity and integrity of a nation as a whole.

Excerpted from the Dr C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture 2018, ‘Great Contemporaries: Akbar, Suleiman I and Elizabeth I’, delivered in New Delhi on January 14.

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