The Tauhidic basis for inter-community peace and justice: Lessons from Dara Shikoh

By Yoginder Sikand,,

In today’s rapidly globalizing world, relations between states and between different communities need a firmly moral basis. Clearly, as long as such relations are premised, as they are today, simply on unequal power and economic structures, sustained peace and justice will remain elusive, and ongoing conflicts can only linger on or even further exacerbate. While generally-accepted secular contemporary human rights norms are an obvious ingredient in developing this moral basis for international and inter-community relations, they are, in themselves, insufficient. Given the salience of religion globally (and also of conflicts that are sought to be justified by appeals to religion), the moral basis for such relations needs also to draw on existing religious/spiritual resources. A key task in this regard is to recover, articulate and promote religious traditions or interpretations that reflect or champion justice, peace and solidarity transcending communitarian bounds, being grounded in a firm faith in ethical monotheism. These traditions can make a valuable contribution in developing the moral basis that we seek today to govern inter-community and international relations, providing them with a vital transcendental dimension that contemporary secular human rights discourses lack. This paper seeks to develop this argument by building on the insights of a key medieval Indian religious figure Dara Shikoh, focusing particularly on his quest for developing a consensus between conflicting religious communities and their conflicting truth claims.

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Dara Shikoh’s quest for a universal Sufi ethic

Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the Mughal Emperor of India, Shah Jahan, and heir apparent to his throne, was born near Ajmer in 1615 C.E.1 It is said that before Dara’s birth, Shah Jahan had paid a visit to the tomb of the great Chishti Sufi mystic, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti at Ajmer and there had prayed for a son to be born to him, since all his earlier children had been daughters. Thus, when Dara was born great festivities were held in Delhi, the imperial capital, for the Emperor now had an heir to succeed him to the throne.

Like any other Mughal prince, Dara’s early education was entrusted to maulvis attached to the royal court, who taught him the Qur’an, Persian poetry, and history. His chief instructor was one Mullah ‘Abdul Latif Saharanpuri, who developed in the young Dara an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the speculative sciences, including Sufism. In his youth, Dara came into contact with numerous Muslim and Hindu mystics, some of whom exercised a profound influence on him. The most noted among these was Hazrat Miyan Mir (d.1635 C.E.), a Qadri Sufi of Lahore whose disciple he later became. Hazrat Miyan Mir is best remembered for having laid the foundation-stone of the Harmandir Sahib or Golden Temple at Amritsar at the request of his close friend, Guru Arjan Dev, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs. The strand of Qadri Sufism that Miyan Mir represented, which he must have bequeathed to his disciples, including Dara, thus appears to have been extremely catholic and accepting of spiritual truths in other traditions and communities. This must be seen as in marked contrast to the ‘orthodox’ ‘ulema associated with the royal courts, the vast majority of who appeared to champion a misplaced Islamic or, more exactly, Muslim supremacism, not just denying the possibility of spiritual worth in other faith traditions and communities but also going so far as to advocate their suppression and extirpation.

After Dara was initiated into the Qadri Sufi order, which he describes in his Risala-i Haq Numa as ‘the best path of reaching Divinity’, he came into contact with several other accomplished mystics of his day, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, including Shah Muhibullah, Shah Dilruba, Shah Muhammad Lisanullah Rostaki, Baba Lal Das Bairagi, and Jagannath Mishra. Dara’s willingness to freely interact with, among other, non-Muslim seekers of the truth marked an understanding of Islam that was in contrast to the court ‘ulema. It was perhaps more in line in keeping with the original Quranic vision, which regards all communities as having been the recipients of divine revelation through prophets, all of who taught a common, universal din, the same primal religion of surrender to the One that was preached by the last of them, the Prophet Muhammad.

Dara’s close and friendly interaction with non-Muslim mystics led him to seek to establish bridges of understanding between Sufism and local or Indic forms of mysticism. In pursuit of this aim, Dara set about seeking to learn more about the religious systems of the Brahmins. He studied Sanskrit, and, with the help of the Pandits of Benaras, prepared a Persian translation of the Upanishads, which was later followed by his Persian renderings of the Gita and the Yoga Vasishta. Throughout this endeavour, his fundamental concern was the quest for the discovery of the Unity of God, seeking to draw out commonalities in the scriptures of the Hindus and the Muslims. One can see this quest as a search for the recovery of the original vision of both the Quran and of the Indic scriptures, the former having been clouded by excessive ritualism in the name of the shari‘ah and Muslim communalism, the latter by widespread corruption, ritualism and caste prejudice. If, as Dara possibly believed, the core of Islam, understood here in the sense of the primal din taught by all the prophets, including the Prophet Muhammad and the prophets sent by God to India, was monotheism (Arabic/Farsi/Urdu: tauhid, Hindi: ekishvarvad), his quest in drawing parallels between the Quran and the Upanishads can be seen as an effort to recover, highlight and stress this monotheism—the basic common core of divine revelation that could bring about a grand reconciliation between Muslims and Hindus. This project of unity was to be based on the principle of tauhid, regarding the differences of language, custom and ritual that distinguished Muslims and Hindus from each other as secondary, and, indeed, ultimately speaking, immaterial in the eyes of God.

Dara expresses this concern in his Persian translation of the Upanishads, the Sirr ul-Akbar (‘The Great Secret’) thus:

“And whereas I was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostic doctrines of every sect and to hear their lofty expressions of monotheism and had cast my eyes upon many theological books and had been a follower thereof for many years, my passion for beholding the Unity [of God], which is a boundless ocean, increased every moment. […] Thereafter, I began to ponder as to why the discussion of monotheism is so conspicuous in India and why the Indian [Hindu] mystics and theologians of ancient India do not disavow the Unity of God, nor do they find any fault with the Unitarians.”

Dara’s works are numerous, all in the Persian language, only some of which are readily available today. His writings fall into two broad categories. The first consists of books on Sufism and Muslim saints, the most prominent of these being the Safinat ul-Auliya, the Sakinat ul-Auliya, the Risala-i Haq Numa, the Tariqat ul-Haqiqat, the Hasanat ul-‘Arifin and the Iksir-i ‘Azam. The second consists of writings on parallels between Muslim and Hindu mysticism, such as the Majma’ ul-Bahrain, the Mukalama-i Baba Lal Das wa Dara Shikoh, the Sirr-i Akbar, and his Persian translations of the Yoga Vashishta and the Gita.

Dara on Tauhid as the basis of human unity

Dara’s Muslim critics, particularly among the Sunni ‘ulema (in his own time, down to our own) berated him for allegedly renouncing Islam or for allegedly mixing Islam with ‘infidelity’. Nothing could be further from the truth. In actual fact, Dara’s commitment to Islam was unquestionable, although, obviously, his understanding of Islam was in marked contrast to that of his ‘orthodox’ Sunni critics, particularly on the question of recognising, accepting, respecting and even celebrating religious truths in other communities, particularly the Hindus, whom the ‘ulema regarded as infidels and polytheists who deserved to be exterminated, or, at least, to be crushed and subdued. Dara’s understanding was hardly an aberration even within the larger Muslim Sufi fold, for numerous other Indian Sufis made much the same arguments. Dara located himself firmly within the broader Sufi Muslim tradition, as is evident from the numerous works on Sufism that he penned, including the Safinat ul-Auliya, a biography of several leading Sufi saints, his first work, composed in 1640 C.E., and the Sirr ul-Auliya, his second biography of various Sufi saints. Unlike the Sakinat ul-Auliya, which deals with Sufis of various orders, this book discusses only the Qadri Sufis of India. Here Dara explicitly declares his Qadri credentials, confessing, ‘Nothing attracts me more than this Qadri order, which has fulfilled my spiritual aspirations’. Dara’s third book on Sufism, the Hasanat ul-‘Arifin or ‘The Aphorisms of the Gnostics’, consists of the sayings of 107 Sufis of various spiritual orders. In his introduction, Dara explains why he wrote the book: “I was enamoured of studying books on the ways of the men of the Path and had in my mind nothing save the understanding of the Unity of God.” This thirst to comprehend the principle and meaning of tauhid—the core of not just the Quran, but all other forms of divine revelation as well prior to the advent of the Prophet Muhammad, and indeed the uniting principle of all of them, placed Dara firmly within the Islamic tradition, as broadly understood.

In line with numerous other mystics, Dara, as is evident in his writings on Sufism, was bitterly critical of ritualism in the name of religion, which tended to substitute for genuine devotion and which also served to build walls of division between various communities. In the Hasanat ul-‘Arifin, Dara bitterly criticises self-styled ‘ulama who, ignoring the inner dimension of the faith, focus simply on external rituals. His critique is directed against mindless ritualism emptied of inner spiritual content, and he challenges the claims of religious professionals who would readily trade their faith for worldly gain. Thus, he says:

May the world be free from the noise of the mulla

And none should pay any heed to their fatwas.

As for those religious scholars and priests who claim to be religious authorities but have actually little or no understanding at all of the true spirit of religion, Dara writes, ‘As a matter of fact, these are ignoramuses to themselves and learned to the ignorant’, and adds the following couplet:

Every prophet and saint suffered afflictions and torments,

Due to the vicious and ignominious conduct of the mullah.

The term ‘mullah’ here is thus not a class just limited to Muslims alone. It comes to stand for exploitative religious professionals associated with every community whose tradition is associated with one or the other prophet or saint. Its parallel in the Hindu tradition would be the pandit, whom numerous Indian mystics roundly berated for precisely the same reasons. These men, who thrive on opposing true religiosity, have, Dara would probably argue, a vested interest in stressing and magnifying differences, based largely on language, customs and rituals, between different communities, turning a blind eye to the basis of all true religion—tauhid—consciousness of which alone can unite people beyond narrow, ascriptive communal boundaries. In another of his works on Sufism, Tariqat ul-Haqiqat, Dara articulates tauhid as the basis of an ethic that can unite all human beings irrespective of communitarian labels in the following verse:

You dwell in the Ka‘aba and in Somnath [a famous Shaivite temple]

And in the hearts of the enamoured lovers.

In his Risala-i Haq Numa, Dara discusses the various stages on the Sufi path, where the seeker (salik) is shown as starting from the ‘alam-i nasut or ‘the physical plane’, and, passing through various stages, finally reaching the ‘alam-i lahut or ‘the plane of Absolute Truth’. Some of the physical exercises employed by the Sufis that are described in the Risala-i Haq Numa are shown by Dara to be similar to those used by the Hindu Tantriks and Yogis. These include astral healing and concentration on the centres of meditation in the heart and brain. Further, he suggests that the four planes through which the Sufi seeker’s journey takes him—nasut , jabrut, malakut and lahut—correspond to the Hindu concept of the avasthanam or the four ‘states’ of jagrat, swapna, shushpati and turiya. By stressing the similarities, or identicalness, of the concept of the planes in both Hindu and Muslim mystical systems, Dara seems to argue that, at root, both stem from a common tauhidic tradition, the differences between them, as suggested by their different terminology, being apparent—only linguistic—and not real.

Dara on the religious systems of Hindus

Medieval Muslim ‘ulema in India, as has been suggested earlier, generally (with notable exceptions) regarded the Hindus as polytheists, and some of them even went so far as to refuse to accept them even as ‘People of the Book’ (ahl-i kitab), who could be granted protection in return for the payment of the jizya. This attitude of theirs was a principal cause for a deep-rooted and long-standing tradition of hostility between Hindus and Muslims. It was premised on a notion of Muslim communal supremacism, which some noted Sufis actively protested against as un-Islamic, and not warranted by their understanding of Islam and tauhid. Dara can be classed in this category of Sufis, who not only denounced Muslim communalism but also actively sought to explore a common spiritual basis for unity between Hindus and Muslims, rooted in tauhid.

In pursuance of this aim, Dara wrote extensively on the religious systems of the Hindus, following in the tradition of several Muslim mystics and scholars before him. Like several Muslim Sufis, he saw the possibility of some religious figures of the Hindus having been actually been prophets of God, and certain Hindu scriptures as having been of divine origin. Thus, for instance, he writes in the Sirr-i Akbar that a strong strain of monotheism may be discerned in the Vedas and opines that the monotheistic philosophy of the Upanishads may be ‘in conformity with the Holy Qur’an and a commentary thereon’.

In his quest for an empathetic understanding of the Hindu religious systems, Dara spent many years in the study of Sanskrit, and for this purpose employed a large number of Pandits from Benaras. Several contemporary Sanskrit scholars praised him for his liberal patronage of the language. Prominent among these was Jagannath Mishra, who, it is said, was once weighed against silver coins at Shah Jahan’s command and the money given to him. He was the author of the Jagatsimha, a work in praise of Dara, and of the Asif Vilasa, a treatise written in praise of Asif Khan, brother of Nur Jahan, wife of Shah Jahan. Other Sanskrit scholars who were patronised by Dara included Pandit Kavindracharya, who was granted a royal pension of two thousand rupees, and Banwali Das, author of a historical work on the kings of Delhi from Yudhishtra, a key figure of the epic Mahabharata, to Shah Jahan, for which he was honored by Shah Jahan with the title of Sarvavidyanidhana.

The most well-known of Dara’s several works on the religious sciences of the Hindus is his Majma ul-Bahrain (‘The Mingling of the Two Oceans’). Completed when Dara was forty-two years old, this book is a pioneering attempt to build on the similarities between Sufism and certain strands of Hindu monotheistic thought, and it is these two that the ‘two oceans’ in the book’s name refer to. He describes this treatise as ‘a collection of the truth and wisdom of two Truth-knowing groups’. It is, in terms of content, rather technical, focussing on Hindu terminology and their equivalents in Islamic Sufism. The basic message that this book conveys is summed up in Dara’s own words thus: ‘Mysticism is equality’, and, he adds, ‘If I know that an infidel, immersed in sin, is, in a way, singing the note of monotheism, I go to him, hear him and am grateful to him’.

The Majma-ul Bahrain is divided into twenty-two sections, in each of which Dara seeks to draw out the similarities between Hindu and Sufi concepts and teachings. Thus, for instance, the Hindu notion of mutki, he says, is identical with the Sufi concept of salvation, denoting the annihilation (fana) of the self in God. Or, for example, the Sufi concept of ‘ishq (love) is said to be identical with the maya of the Hindu monotheists. From Love, says Dara, was born the ‘great soul’, alternately known as the soul of Muhammad to the Sufis, and mahatman or hiranyagarba to the Hindus.

Dara’s translation of certain Hindu scriptures into Persian represents a landmark in the process of developing bridges of understanding between people of different faith communities in medieval India, in which certain Sufis played the leading role. One of Dara’s earliest attempts at translation was his rendering of the Gita into Persian. Keenly interested as he was in the philosophy of Yoga, Dara also had the Yoga Vasishta, one of the earliest Sanskrit texts on Yoga, translated into Persian. The translator of the text opens his treatise with praises of God and the Prophet Muhammad thus:

“Gratitude, adoration and submission are offered to the One, the Sun of whose glory shines in every atom of the cosmos and where grandeur is manifested in the entire Universe, although He is hidden from all eyes and is behind the veil; boundless benedictions in all sincerity and faith free from error, omission or sanctimoniousness to that choicest product of His creation, to that personification of all that is best, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may peace and Allah’s blessings be upon him, and the same to the Imam ‘Ali, the object of his love.”

The translator then quotes Dara as saying:

“My chief reason for this noble command [to have the Yoga Vasishta translated] is that although I had profited by pursuing a translation of the Yoga Vasishta ascribed to Shaikh Sufi, yet once two saintly persons appeared in my dreams; one of whom was tall, whose hair was grey, the other short and without any hair. The former was Vasishta and the latter Ram Chandra, and as I had read the translation already alluded to, I was naturally attracted to them and paid them my respects. Vasishta was very kind to me and patted me on the back, and, addressing Ram Chandra, told him that I was brother to him because both he and I were seekers after truth. He asked Ram Chandra to embrace me, which he did in exuberance of love. Thereupon, Vasishta gave some sweets to Ram Chandra, which I also took and ate. After this vision, a desire to cause the translation of the book intensified in me.”

Dara established close and cordial relations with mystics from various backgrounds. Among these were several Yogis and sadhus, about some of whom Dara also wrote. One such sadhu was Baba Lal, follower of the renowned Sufi-Bhakti saint Kabir and founder of a small monotheistic order named after him as the Baba Lalis. Many of the teachings of this sect can be traced to a distinct Sufi influence. A summary of these teachings is to be found in Dara’s Makalama Baba Lal wa Dara Shikoh, which consists of seven long conversations between the Baba and Dara held in Lahore in 1653. These seven discourses were composed originally in Hindawi, and were later translated into Persian by Dara’s chief secretary, Rai Chandar Bhan. As in the case of Dara’s translation of the Yoga Vasishta, this text focuses particularly on certain similarities in the teachings of Hindu and Muslim mystics.

The great interest that Dara had in exploring monotheistic strands in Hindu philosophy led him, finally, to translate fifty-two Upanishads into Persian. The text that he prepared, the Sirr ul-Akbar (‘The Great Secret’) was completed in 1657. Here, he opines that the ‘great secret’ of the Upanishads is the monotheistic message, which is identical to that on which the Qur’an is based. The text begins with praises to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad thus:

“Praised be the Being, that among whose eternal secrets is the dot in the b of the bismillah in all the Heavenly Books, and glorified be the Mother of Books. In the Holy Qur’an is the token of His glorious name; and the angels and the heavenly books and the prophets and the saints are all comprehended in this name. And the blessings of the Almighty Allah be upon the best of His creatures, the Holy Prophet Muhammad and upon all his family and upon all his Companions!”

Dara then proceeds to detail the purpose behind translating the Upanishads. He writes that in the year 1050 A.H. he visited Kashmir, and there he met Hazrat Mullah Shah, whom he describes as ‘the flower of the Gnostics, the tutor of the tutors, the sage of the sages, the guide of the guides, the Unitarians accomplished in the Truth’. Thereafter, he says, he was filled with a longing to ‘behold the Gnostics of every sect and to hear the lofty expressions of monotheism’. Hence, he says, he began his search for monotheism in other scriptures as well, including the Torah of the Jews (Taurat), the Gospels of Jesus (Injil) the Psalms of David (Zabur), and, in addition, the books of the ancient Hindus. He notes with approval the fact that certain Hindu ‘theologians and mystics’ (‘ulama-i zahiri wa batini) actually believe in One God, but laments that ‘the ignoramuses of the present age’, who claim to be authorities in matters of religion, have completely distorted this fundamental truth. His search for traces of monotheism in the religious systems of the Hindus stems, he says, from his faith in the Qur’an, which states that God has, from time to time, sent prophets to all peoples to preach the worship of the One. Thus, he goes on to add:

“And it can also be ascertained from the Holy Qur’an that there is no nation without a prophet and without a revealed scripture, for it has been said: ‘Nor do We chastise until We raise an apostle’ [Qur’an: XVII, 15]. And in another verse: ‘And there is not a people but a warner has gone among them’ [Qur’an: XXXV, 24]. And at another place: ‘Certainly we sent our apostles with clear arguments, and sent down with them the Book and the Measure’ [Qur’an: LVII, 25].”

Accordingly, says Dara, he travelled to Benaras in 1067 A.H., where he assembled several leading Sanskrit Pandits to translate the Upanishads, in an effort to draw out from the scriptures of the Hindus the hidden teachings on monotheism which are, he says, ‘in conformity with the Holy Qur’an’. Having explored the teachings of the Upanishads, he writes that they are ‘a treasure of monotheism’, although, he notes, ‘very few are conversant with this, even among the Hindus’. Hence, he says, there is an urgent need to bring to light this ‘Great Secret’ so that the Hindus can learn the truth about monotheism as contained in their own scriptures and, in addition, Muslims, too, can be made aware of the spiritual treasures that the Upanishads contain. He goes so far as to claim for the Upanishads, in their original forms, the status of divinely revealed scriptures, claiming that the Qur’anic verse which speaks about a ‘protected book’, which ‘none shall touch but the purified ones’ [Qur’an: LVI, 77-80] literally applies to them, because some of the verses of the Qur’an are to be found in their Sanskrit form therein. This conclusion can indeed be contested, although the sincerity of Dara’s effort to draw parallels between the Hindu and Muslim mystical systems and to stress their common core of tauhid as a uniting principle and the basis of an ethic of universal human understanding and solidarity cannot be so easily dismissed as his detractors did, causing him to be killed at the command of his younger brother and rival to the Mugahl throne, Aurangzeb Alamgir, in the year 1657.

Dara’s relevance in today’s age

Tauhid, or belief in and surrender to the One, formed the aim of Dara’s spiritual quest. Tauhid was also the basis of his effort to develop a rapprochement between people of different communities, most notably Hindus and Muslims. The ethical monotheism that Dara stood for, and which indeed all the prophets had preached, was the basis, and, indeed, real intention of all divine revelation, Dara stressed. The differences in rituals, language, manners and customs, which served to build barriers of division and hostility between different peoples in the name of religion, he seems to have believed, were, ultimately, meaningless, particularly if they were taken as ends in themselves, as many conventional religionists did in Dara’s time—and still do.

Commitment to tauhid is not, Dara suggests, simply a matter of personal belief. Rather, it must necessarily translate into practical action on the social plane. The fact of the unity of God must also be reflected in a deep and abiding commitment to struggling for the unity and solidarity of humankind, beyond all ascriptive differences, working together to fulfil the purposes of God’s creation plan. That struggle for unity, harmony and peace, one whose challenge we continue to be faced with, is demanded precisely by the commitment to tauhid, the core the universal din preached by all prophets, Dara would probably have insisted. This, however, might seem easier said than done. Peace cannot be had without justice, and in the face of oppression—in the name of religion, nation, community, gender and so on. In the absence of justice, calls for peace are easily reduced into appeals for preserving an iniquitous status quo and remaining silent in the face of oppression. Calls for justice without peace can only mean endless chaos and ceaseless rounds of revenge and retribution. Dara himself fell prey to a system of injustice despite his life spent in quest for peace and human solidarity transcending narrow boundaries, being accused of apostasy by orthodox clerics and sentenced to death by his power-hungry brother.