Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

Explained: Between Akbar and Pratap, meaningless to look for ‘greater’

Akbar attempted one of history’s biggest and most successful experiments in empire-building.

Maharana Pratap, Maharana Pratap statue, Mughal ruler Akbar, Akbar Pratab tweet, Rajnath tweet, Mughal history, Akbar Sulh i Kul, Rajnath Singh, The current talking-up of Maharana Pratap — and talking-down of Akbar — is clearly part of an effort to actively seek out ‘Hindu’ icons to appropriate into a modern political narrative.

After unveiling a statute of Maharana Pratap this month, Home Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted: “If Akbar can be called ‘Akbar the Great’ for his contribution then why can’t Maharana Pratap be recognised as ‘Maharana Pratap the Great’”?

Earlier, Rajasthan Minister Vasudev Devnani had said: “We keep calling Akbar ‘The Great’. Why is he ‘The Great’?

He is not ‘The Great’. Maharana Pratap is ‘The Great’.”


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So, was Pratap greater or Akbar? Was Akbar great himself? Who is a great ruler?

‘Greatness’ was thrust upon Akbar by the colonial Indologist V A Smith, whose Akbar: The Great Mogul, 1542-1605, was published in 1917. That account — described by Smith himself as “a biography rather than a formal history” — has been repeatedly taken down on facts and interpretation, and is now no more than a footnote in serious scholarship.

Subsequently, textbook writers such as A L Srivastava (A Short History of Akbar the Great, 1957) and the odd European author also used the epithet ‘great’. But the most comprehensive histories of Mughal India, written over the last half century by historians in Aligarh, Delhi and the West, focused on aspects of political economy, society, administration, empire and decline — and not on the personal ‘greatness’ of any individual ruler.

Among the world’s “great” kings are counted Herod, Cyrus, Darius, Rameses and Alexander in the ancient world, the Russian monarchs Peter and Catherine, the English king Alfred, Mongol conqueror Genghis and, in India, the two Chandraguptas, Ashok, Akbar and the Chola Raja Raja I. Ashok and Akbar would be best known to most Indians.
These ‘greats’ have been evaluated higher compared to their peers, for their legacy and impact on future generations and history.


Ashok’s reign saw the establishment of Empire in India, manifested in an unprecedented territorial sweep, spectacular architecture, and a state  hinged on a complex machinery of revenue extraction. It marked a new stage in the development of the political economy of early India.

Akbar attempted one of history’s biggest and most successful experiments in empire-building. He gave the independent principalities around the Indo-Gangetic heartland a stake in Empire, creating the composite polity that fused the geographical entity of India into a political one. No concept of ‘nation’ could have existed then, but the process of political-geographical unification that began was to ultimately bind India closer together.

Both Ashok and Akbar propounded new theoretical and philosophical bases of imperial sovereignty: Ashok’s Dhamma, the universal law of righteousness, and Akbar’s Sulh-i-Kul, or Peace for All. Religious tolerance, and the projection of the king as father to all of his subjects, were essential principles that underpinned both philosophies.
Since the context — spoken or unspoken — of the current debate is the underscoring of Hindu resistance against Muslim imperialism, consider Akbar’s record on religion. And remember, this is an illiterate, sixteenth century despot we are talking about.


At age 20, he was participating in fire-worship homs with his Hindu wives. Over the next three years, he had abolished pilgrimage tax and jiziya, and given a huge grant for the temple at Vrindavan.

By the late 1570s, he had embraced Ibn al-Arabi’s doctrine of Wahdat-ul-Wujud, which led him to believe that all religions were either equally true or equally illusory — bringing him close to the Nirguna Bhakti sects, and upsetting the orthodox among all religions.

In the Ain-i-Akbari, Abul Fazl, Akbar’s mouthpiece, wrote: “The pursuit of reason (aql) and rejection of traditionalism (taqlid) are so brilliantly patent as to be above the need of argument. If traditionalism was proper, the prophets would merely have followed their own elders (rather than propound new philosophies).”

Sufi mystics, Sunni and Shia theologians, Brahmin pandits, Jain monks, Jewish philosophers and Zoroastrian priests all congregated in Akbar’s Ibadat Khana. He seems to have been especially fond of Shwetambara Jains, and banned animal slaughter for some months of the year in their honour.

Akbar’s “sayings” in the Ain show flashes of amazingly modern ideas: he once stopped the transfer of a Hindu dak chowki man until his wife too was ready to move, and he frowned at Muslim personal law that gave daughters a smaller inheritance even though “the weaker should receive a large share”.


He prohibited sati and pre-puberty marriages, and condemned slavery and slave trade — the earliest pushing of the envelope on moral/social improvement in Indian society. He rejected meat-eating, which turns the body’s inside, “where reside the mysteries of divinity, into a burial ground of animals”.

Four of the brightest ‘Nine Gems’ — Todar Mal, Man Singh, Birbal, Tansen — were born Hindu. His best generals, Bhagwant Das and Man Singh, were Krishna bhakts who refused to convert to Din-i-Ilahi, the religion so close to Akbar’s heart. He bowed to their wishes.


The current talking-up of Pratap — and talking-down of  Akbar — is clearly part of an effort to actively seek out ‘Hindu’ icons to appropriate into a modern political narrative. This has been more the rule than the exception for claimants to power everywhere.

And yet, there has never been a question on the gallantry, heroism or fearlessness of Pratap, Shivaji, or even Hemu, the brilliant military commander whose rule over Delhi Akbar ended in Panipat in 1556. No one has said that they were not brave, valorous or honourable. They were all great sons of India. To insist that Pratap was greater than Akbar is meaningless and unnecessary.

First published on: 28-05-2015 at 01:48:44 am
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