Dara Shukoh

Birth of Prince Dara Shukoh at Ajmer.

Dara Shukoh: A Forgotten Hero of Indian Cultural Synthesis - Need of Dara’s Spirit in contemporary world against terrorism

Dara Shukoh was born on 20 March 1615 A.D. at Sagartal near Ajmer. It is said that his father, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan, visited the tomb of the great Chishti saint Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti and had prayed there with folded hands and down knees for a son since all his earlier children had been daughters. The prayer brought fruits and the child born had the influence of the teachings of the Sufi saint.

Dara’s was a unique and marvelous personality among the Mughal royal family. He was entirely distinct in all respects from other princes of the entire Mughal house since the establishment of the Mughal rule in 1526 till its ultimate extinction in 1857. He had no likings for luxuries and sensual pleasures but had developed refined tastes in his life. In fact, he had combined in himself the qualities of his two great ancestors Humayun and Akbar. The habit of passing more and more time in the Library to acquire knowledge was inherited by him from Humayun who had lost his life while descending from the stairs of the royal Library, while the interest in comparative religions, universal brotherhood, humanism and peace, came from the great emperor Akbar. These influences played a notable role in shaping his mind. His great mission in life was the promotion of peace and concord between the followers of Hinduism and Islam. It is true to say that at this moment when the unity of India, depends on the mutual comprehension of the two spiritual elements (Hinduism and Islam), attention can legitimately be paid to the figure of Dara Shukoh who attempted in the 17th century what Kabir and Akbar had done before him in the 15th and 16th century respectively, or what Raja Ram Mohan Roy did in the nineteenth.

Early Education: Formative Period of Dara

Dara’s initiation into early education was not an exception and he was put, like other Princes, under the guidance of the royal teachers who taught him the Quran, Persian poetry and history. Credit goes to one tutor named Mulla Abdul Latif Saharanpuri, who inculcated in him the habit of reading and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. The Sufi leanings of his tutor had a great impact on young Dara. Besides this, the influence of contemporary Sufi saints had played a significant role in shaping young Dara’s mind.

Initiation in the Qadiri order and its Influence

The prince witnessed change in his life after the initiation in the Qadiri order in 1640 A.D. and his close association with Mian Mir, Mulla Badakhashi and other saints. This was a remarkable phase of his life when he spent his major time in the royal Library busy in intensive studies in mysticism, the philosophy and the principles of the Qadiri order. This resulted in the publication of his major works on Sufism namely, the Safinat-ul-Auliya  (1640 A.D.), the Sakinat-ul-Auliya ( 1643A.D.) the Risala’i Haq Numa  (1647 A.D.), the Tariqat-ul-Haqiqat and the Hasanat-ul-Arifin (1653 A.D.). The first two books are biographical dictionaries of the Sufi saints and the last three contain his exposition of some of the Sufi fundamental doctrines. This was in fact a period of intellectual pursuits for Dara.

Another phase is marked by Dara’s quest for understanding of the Hindu religious systems. For this he spent many years in the study of Sanskrit and employed a large number of Pandits from Benaras. His patronage of the language brought applaud from the contemporary scholars. Prominent among them were Jaganath Mishra, Pandit Kavindracharya and Banwali Das. Jaganath Mishra even wrote a book named Jagatsimha in praise of Dara.

In his continuous search for the truth, his meeting with Baba Lal Das Bairagi proved quite enlightening. The dialogues with this Hindu mendicant demonstrate his growing interest in comparative religion. Dara had compiled a summary of these teachings in Makalama Baba Lal Wa Dara Shukoh, which consists of seven long conversations between the Baba and the Prince held in 1653 A.D. This text focuses particularly on certain similarities in the teachings of Hindu and Muslim mystics.

Similarly, he found some common elements in the Qadiri ashghal and the yogic meditational exercises of the Hindus which made him translate the Yoga Vasistha into Persian in 1650 A.D. In the same vein to understand Indian philosophical thought, he also translated the Bhagwatgita in the same year.

Dara’s sustained researches in comparative religions came out in the form of an extremely remarkable book known as Majma-ul Bahrain, or the mingling of the two oceans. Here he employees the term ‘two oceans’ for Sufism and Hinduism.  This book came to light in 1656, just three years prior to his execution. In fact it was a pioneering attempt to find out the commonalities between Sufism and Hindu monotheism. He describes this book as ‘a collection of truth and wisdom of two truth-knowing groups’. This book shows Dara Shukoh’s belief in the unity of all religions.

His spiritual quest for monotheistic strands in Hindu philosophy was a continuous process. This led him to study the Upanishads and with the help of some scholars of Benaras he translated 50 Upanishads from Sanskrit to Persian. The text he prepared, the Sirr-i-Akbar, ‘the Great Secret’ was completed in 1657. He was of the firm opinion that the ‘Great Secret’ of the Upanishads is the monotheistic message, which is identical to that on which the Quran is based.

The aim behind the translation of these Hindu religious works was to search common elements in Hinduism and Islam and he draws remarkable parallels between the concepts described in the holy Quran and the Upanishads with respect to tauhid or unity of God. The comparison led him to reach on the conclusion that the Quran and the Upanishads represented two different facts of God. In the introduction of this book he states with full boldness his speculative hypothesis that the work referred to in the Quran as the “Kitab-al-Maknum” or the hidden book, is none other than the ital. This annoyed the orthodox mullas who issued a fatwa (decree) against him. These statements were exploited by his political opponents also and provided them an excuse to execute him with utmost cruelty in 1659. Though his search for the truth cost him his life, his was a pioneering effort at religious synthesis or syncretism.

The Diwan and the Quatraims of Dara

The prince was a great poet in the eyes of his contemporary intellectuals. His Diwan known as the Iksir-i-Azam, is described as “incomparable and heart-pleasing” by his spiritual guide Mulla Shah. The author of Khazinat-ul-Asfiyat remarks about his poetry that “his poetry is like the ocean of unitarianism, flowing out of his pearl scattering tongue; or like the sun of Monotheism, rising from the horizon in the manner of his luminous opening verse (matla’)”. He has expressed his Sufistic views in quatrains and ghazals. Besides his poetic accomplishments, he seems to have been very well-read in classical Persian literature.
He was also a patron of fine arts, music and dancing, a trait frowned upon by his sibling Aurangzeb. The 'Dara Shikoh album' is a collection of paintings and calligraphy assembled from the 1630s until his death. It was presented to his wife Nadira Banu and remained with her until her death after which the album was taken into the royal library and the inscriptions connecting it with Dara Shikoh were deliberately erased; however not everything was vandalised and many calligraphy scripts and paintings still bear his mark. This made him a heretic in the eyes of his orthodox brother and a suspect eccentric in the view of many of the worldly power brokers swarming around the Mughal throne. 
On 10 September 1642, Shah Jahan formally confirmed Dara as his heir, granting him the title of Shahzada-e-Buland Iqbal ("Prince of High Fortune") and promoting him to command of 20,000-foot and 20,000 horse. In 1645, he was appointed as subadar (governor) of Allahabad. He was promoted to a command of 30,000-foot and 20,000 horse on 18 April 1648, and was appointed Governor of the province of Gujarat on 3 July.

But on 6 September 1657, the illness of emperor Shah Jahan triggered a desperate struggle for power among the four Mughal princes, though realistically only Dara and Aurangzeb had a chance of emerging victorious.

Dara was defeated by Aurangzeb and Murad on 14 February 1658, during the Battle of Samugarh, 13 km from Agra. Subsequently Aurangzeb took over Agra fort and deposed emperor Shah Jahan on 8 June 1658.
After this defeat Dara fled to Sindh and sought refuge under Malik Jiwan, an Afghan chieftain, whose life he had saved on more than one from the wrath of Shah Jahan. However, Malik betrayed Dara and turned him (and his second son Sipihr Shikoh) over to Aurangzeb's army on 10 June 1659.

Dara was brought to Delhi, placed on a filthy elephant and paraded through the streets of the capital in chains. Dara's fate was decided by the political threat he posed as a prince popular with the common people. A convocation of nobles and clergy, called by Aurangzeb in response to the perceived danger of insurrection in Delhi, declared him a threat to the public peace and an apostate from Islam.[He was assassinated by four of Aurangzeb's henchmen in front of his terrified son on the night of 30 August 1659. After his death, he was beheaded, and his head was served to his father, Shah Jahan on a platter.

Yet Dara was a true Muslim, we see him in one of the paintings, praying in the mosque of the Red Fort in Delhi, with his sons and he always chanted Allah’s name, before translating the Upanishads.

FACT – India mounted this exhibition in the hope that Dara Shikoh's message and spirit will again pervade in India, rather than Aurangzeb’s intolerance and fanaticism. Our exhibition demonstrates that Dara was a gentle and pious Sufi intellectual and perhaps the greatest representative of Indian cultural synthesis. It can be easily imagined as to how different India would have been had he emerged successful against his orthodox brother Aurangzeb. The defeat of Dara was in a sense, the defeat of liberal Indian ideas.