HE MAY have lost out to his brother in the battle of thrones, but centuries after his death, Dara Shukoh is staging a comeback in popular imagination. He has uprooted British Governor General Dalhousie from a road in central Delhi and the Indian Council of Cultural Relations has plans to host a seminar dedicated to him soon.
So, who was the philosopher-prince who has often been called the greatest syncretic of India? Would India’s future, as some claim, have looked any different, would a deeper understanding between Hindus and Muslims and a stronger Mughal front kept away the British, and would Partition have been avoidable had the “tolerant and pluralist” Dara acceded to the throne instead of the puritanical and “religious zealot” Aurangzeb?
Historians are divided over the answer, but all agree that no two princes could have been as unlike as heir apparent Dara Shukoh, the first and favourite son of Shah Jahan and favoured brother of Jahanara, and Aurangzeb, his third son. They also agree that his name is often erroneously spelt as Shikoh — the newly named road too carries this spelling — which means terror in Persian, instead of the intended Shukoh, which means grandeur, glory or splendour.
Born in 1615, Dara Shukoh developed an early interest in the esoteric aspects of Islam and mysticism and in Hindu philosophy. He received instructions from Hindu seers and tried to find the common threads in Islam and Hinduism. “Nobody deserves a road named after him more than Dara Shukoh. There is no doubt that he was an outstanding character. He had an intellectual interest in understanding religion, not because he thought he was going to be king but because he was deeply intellectual,” says historian Harbans Mukhia.
But some see the politics behind the New Delhi Municipal Corporation’s move to name a road after him as problematic. “Doing this in normal circumstances would have been fine, it would be a routine matter, but the politics of it is repulsive. It’s this whole good Muslim-bad Muslim idea. Aurangzeb was a bad Muslim, (A P J Abdul) Kalam was a good Muslim, Dara Shukoh was a good Muslim. We reinforce stereotypes with this,” says Mukhia.
The poet-prince, so evocatively etched by Gopal Gandhi in his play Dara Shukoh, authored a number of books, many of which he wrote with the help of scholars. His Majma’ al-Bahrain (Mingling of the Two Oceans), is one of the earliest works to explore both the diversity of religions and a unity of Islam and Hinduism and other religions. He arrived at the conclusion that the “hidden book” mentioned in the Quran was none other than the Upanishads and believed that in order to understand the Quran, one needed to study the Hindu text. With the help of pandits, he also translated 52 volumes of the Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian into a tome called Sirr-e-Akbar (The Greatest Secret). He even drew an equation between Adam and Brahma — a view which, according to historians, led to him being branded a heretic and to his execution.
In his interest in other religions, Dara, in many ways, took forward the legacy of Akbar. But there were crucial differences. “There was a sea of difference between the two,” says historian Shireen Moosvi. “Dara was all for plurality but was not for reason and rationality like Akbar. Dara moved from mysticism to Hinduism. He tried to see strains of Islam in Hinduism and Hinduism in Islam and very often saw things that weren’t there. But credit has to be given to Dara for his scholarship. Akbar got Hindu texts translated whereas Dara learnt the language and translated them himself with the help of pandits,” she says.
Dara’s story is perhaps never complete without that of his brother Aurangzeb. He was the tolerant pluralist and mystic and Aurangzeb the more religious or more Sunni. “Certainly Dara was not orthodox. In one of his works, he even wrote that paradise is a place that is without mullahs and all the noise they make,” says Moosvi.
Religious consideration perhaps was not top of the mind for the Rajputs who continued to support Aurangzeb and not Dara when the war of succession broke out in 1657 after Shah Jahan fell ill. Though all four brothers — Dara, Aurangzeb, Murad and Shuja — were locked in a bitter war, the first two were the serious contenders. In 1658, Dara was defeated by Aurangzeb and Murad in the Battle of Samugarh near Agra.
Subsequently, Aurangzeb took over Agra Fort and deposed Shah Jahan. Dara was later routed in the Battle of Deorai (near Ajmer) in 1659, after which he fled to Sindh and sought refuge with Malik Jiwan, an Afghan chieftain, whose life had on more than one occasion been saved by the Mughal prince from the wrath of Shah Jahan. But Jiwan betrayed Shukoh and handed him and his second son, Sipihr Shukoh, over to Aurangzeb.
Dara Shukoh was brought to Delhi, placed on a filthy elephant and paraded through the streets of the capital in chains and was subsequently killed by Aurangzeb’s men.
Historians are divided over Dara’s ability to rule had he won. Many point out that he showed his mettle in many of the expeditions that he led but perhaps suffered from the fact that he was mostly kept at court by his father. “We can’t say how he would have been as an administrator as he was not really tested. He was mostly in court and governed his provinces through his deputies,” says historian Irfan Habib.
Dara’s intellectual curiosity and pluralism hold relevance for every age but whether he would have changed India’s course is open to question.