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Thursday, April 09, 2020

Supriya Gandhi: ‘Difficult to call Dara Shukoh liberal or secular’

The historian on why modern concepts can’t be read into the past, history as battleground and her new book on a romanticised Mughal prince.

Written by Kaushik Das Gupta | Published: February 8, 2020 11:00:00 am
supriya Gandhi, Dara Shikoh, Dara Shukoh, Yale University, Indian History, In her words: Supriya Gandhi is a professor at the Religious Studies department, Yale University, the US. (Photo: Travis Zadeh)

Every time Dara Shukoh is mentioned, Aurangzeb’s name inevitably crops up, as a binary between the liberal Dara and the bigoted Aurangzeb. Why is it so?

Both Dara Shukoh and Aurangzeb seem to be familiar figures to us. Aurangzeb, especially, is constantly invoked in the public sphere in India. One politician doesn’t like another, he compares him to Aurangzeb. I have gone back to the sources of their time, while acknowledging the fact that these sources are representations and have to be read carefully. Dara’s own writings are rather self-aggrandising. There are other writings that look upon him very nostalgically. Besides placing the story of Dara in his socio-political context, I try to tease out ways of reading these sources, and the different dimensions they present.

One gets the impression from your book, The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India (Harvard University Press), that one should be careful in ascribing modern-day concepts like liberalism and secularism to figures in the past. Could you elaborate?

One way of reading Dara Shukoh is to look upon him in a rather nostalgic fashion as a pre-modern liberal. In this approach, he seems to represent a kind of a lost era of harmony. Dara never became emperor. That lost possibility is always there. There is absolutely no doubt that he devoted his life to studying and to his own spiritual advancement. In the latter part of his life, his own spiritual refashioning became closely entangled with his deep interest in Indic thought. He was a seeker. One of the things he wanted to do was to find the fount of pure monotheism. When he finally thought he had arrived at this fount, it was through the Upanishads. That ended up being his last work because soon his father fell ill and the struggle for succession started. So, it is easy, in the present day, to pull out the idea that Dara Shukoh wanted Hindu-Muslim harmony throughout the subcontinent. To an extent, Dara did model himself on his great-grandfather Akbar, who also wove together diverse cultural and religious strands into his court. But Dara was also trying to establish the fact that he had some spiritual gifts that no emperor before him had. It would be difficult to call him liberal or even secular because his project was about crafting a model of sovereignty for himself. This, though, inspired later ideas of Indian secularism. So, it is an important facet in the history of secularism in South Asia. But Dara came from a very different time. He was a ruler, we live in a democracy.

Ancient and medieval Indian history have been criticised for being a simplistic reading of the past. Even critics of Hindutva have claimed that historians have not accounted for things like destruction of temples. Your views?

This argument claims that the secular historians are somewhat to blame because they have glossed over the more negative aspects of the Mughal rule and that of other Muslim rulers of the subcontinent. That, by, perhaps, elevating and idealising this period, they have allowed for counter-narratives which single out issues of temple destruction. But I feel a certain amount of generalisation is taking place here. We have to go back to the kind of concerns about different generations of scholars within India and outside working on Indian history. They highlighted other important aspects of the Mughal rule. They weren’t glorifying or idealising the Mughals. Irfan Habib, for instance, engaged in a deep critique of the Mughal state and exploitation of the peasantry. One has to confront all these different dimensions. That’s why I found the narrative form quite suitable to the task of my book on Dara Shukoh. In a narrative history or a biography, one isn’t making a singular argument, one is trying to show the complexity of the age. For instance, I start my book with an episode of Jahangir desecrating a temple. But in the same chapter, he also goes on hunting trips with Hindu rulers and becomes very close to Chidrup, a Hindu ascetic. So, while I highlight many cases of temple destruction, I also underline the deep engagement of the Mughals and their patronage of Indic intellectuals, religious figures and branches of knowledge.

supriya Gandhi, Dara Shikoh, Dara Shukoh, Yale University, Indian History, Cover of Supriya Gandhi’s book, which is on a romanticised Mughal prince.

Biographies of personalities in the medieval age have been very rare, till recently. Now, not only historians but writers, who are not professionally trained as historians, have taken to writing these. Why is there a trend now?

During the colonial period, there was a fixation on individual Mughal rulers. There was this elevation of the persona of the ruler, especially during the age of the so-called “Great Mughals”. Historians very rightly moved away from that to study broader social, economic processes, to look at the Mughal state as not just made up of the ruler and his nobles but looking at its impact on a whole range of people. That was, perhaps, a necessary corrective. One effect of the colonial obsession was to paint Indian rulers as despots — India became this land of people who could not govern themselves, it needed the civilising force of the British rule. In recent times, we have moved away from the need to condemn or lavishly praise these rulers. We can marry narrative with historiography. The time is ripe for critical biographies. Any book on history and public conversation on history is a healthy trend.

Recently, a Muslim Sanskrit scholar’s appointment to Banaras Hindu University courted controversy. Could you tell us about Muslim engagement with Sanskrit in the past?

Dara Shukoh wasn’t a Sanskrit scholar but was interested in Sanskrit and Sanskrit texts. He relied on the help of a range of Brahmin intellectuals and pandits. There are numerous other examples. I think, for Sanskrit to flourish, we need to encourage the humanities to thrive. It is one thing to set up a centre for Sanskrit in a university and another to cultivate an atmosphere where students and faculty can flourish intellectually.

Indian history seems to be in an embattled state today.

There is wonderful work being done by historians in universities across India — and the world. On the other hand, India as a society is one of the places where history is a battleground. The battle isn’t necessarily taking place among professional historians but between ideological positions being taken on social media. These are simplified, essentialised positions that historians haven’t defined. I see two trends. One, a welcome one, with a genuine interest in history. Like the open library, which has been a part of the protests in Jamia (Millia Islamia). And the other where history is being wielded for political purposes and historical figures have become stand-ins for ideological positions.

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