Wednesday, June 18, 2014


Dara Shikoh’s quest for a universal Sufi ethic

Dara Shikoh,is such a fascinating character.I first came across him in the mughal histories I used to devour as a kid.He seemed a mixture of contradictions; a prince and yet a Sufi.Taj Mahal's beautiful son with her eyes, who frequented the company of mystics and poets and died, condemned as a heretic.Yes fascinating man.

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. 

 Dara was eclectic in his spiritual approach and was willing  to freely interact with, among other, non-Muslim seekers of the truth  as well.Much later this was used to condemn Dara as an impure Muslim.

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’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. He studied Vedanta and 
 Sanskrit, and, with the help of the Pandits of Benaras, prepared a Persian translation of the Upanishads and  Gita.

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 the Truth.He believed that what is referred to in the Quran as Kitab al-Maknun [The Hidden Book] is actually the Upanishads.

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.”

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.

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’.Its an accusation levelled against anyone who tries to broaden his spiritual horizons ( yours truly has also been accused of being a bad Muslim quite a few times).

 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. 

 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.

 Dara explicitly declares his Qadri credentials in his books, 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.”

Perhaps what really offended Ulema was that , in line with numerous other mystics, Dara was bitterly critical of ritualism in the name of religion, which tended to substitute for genuine devotion.

In the Hasanat ul-‘Arifin, Dara bitterly criticises self-styled ‘ulama who, ignoring the inner dimension of the faith, focus simply on external rituals and made Islam for appearances sake only.

His critique is directed against mindless ritualism emptied of inner spiritual content,. 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 .

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.

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. 

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.

However, the spiritual stand that Dara who hated the rigidity of religious fundamentalists took did not go well with Aurangazeb who had by then managed to come up in the struggle for the throne and had all the power of the empire firmly in his hands. 

Partly because of his fundamentalist faith and partly from political compulsions, he called for a council of nobles and clergy to decide the fate of Dara Shikoh - and the council promptly declared Dara Shikoh a threat to public peace and a traitor to Islam, exactly as Aurangazeb had desired. Dara was put to death on the night of August 30, 1659.

While it is certain that Indian history would have taken a different turn had Dara, who was in the middle of all literary, spiritual, and intellectual movements of his time, come into power instead of Aurangazeb, many people of the past shared the belief that the end of the Mughal empire in India came because of the curse of killing Dara Shikoh and the great Sufi sage and Persian poet Sarmad, whose disciple Dara Shikoh had become towards the end of his life. 

Dara Shikoh's translation of the Upanishads into Persian was to play a very significant role in awakening the west to the wisdom of the Upanishads. Fourteen years after Dara Shikoh completed the translation, in 1671, Francis Bernier, a French traveler, took the translation to France. Interest in Indian philosophy was awakened in France. Later Victor Cousin, a French Philosopher of high repute, stated in words of high admiration that Vedanta, the philosophy of the Upanishads, is the highest philosophy that mankind has ever produced. The Upanishads and their philosophy soon became very popular in the intellectual circles all over the west. 

German scholars like Friedrich Von Schelling (1775-1854), Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) and Paul Deussen (1854-1919) were fascinated by the Upanishads. Schelling's admiration for the 'Oupnekhats' led him to ask Max Mueller to translate them, for he ardently felt that the Upanishads deserved wide circulation in Germany and every member of the German intelligentsia need to know of them.

Schopenhauer was among the greatest admirers of the s in the west. His magnum opus The World as Will and Idea strongly reflects the power influence of the Upanishads on him. He felt that no other thought of humanity ever came near the Upanishads in the depth of their wisdom and in the service it can provide mankind. Speaking of the wisdom of the ancient sages of India as contained in the Upanishads, the German philosopher said that "it has been the solace of my life, it will be the 


The following is from Dara Shikoh's introduction to his work on the Upanishads, in which he refers to himself in the third person.

"Whereas this unsolicitous fakir Muhammad Dara Shikoh in the year 1050 after Hijra [AD 1640] went to Kashmir" And whereas, he was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostics of every sect, and to hear the lofty expressions of monotheism, and had cast his eyes upon many books of mysticism and had written a number of treatises thereon, and as the thirst of investigation for unity, which is a boundless ocean, became every moment increased, subtle doubts came into his mind for which he had no possibility of solution, except by the word of the Lord and the direction of the Infinite.

"And whereas the holy Quran is mostly allegorical and at the present day persons thoroughly conversant with the subtleties thereof are very rare, he became desirous of bringing in view all the heavenly books, for the very words of God themselves are their own commentary; and what might be in one book compendious, in another might be found diffusive, and from the detail of one, the conciseness of the other might become comprehensible. He had, therefore, cast his eyes on the Book of Moses, the Gospels, the Psalms, and other scriptures but the explanation of monotheism in them also was compendious and enigmatical, and from the slovenly translations which selfish persons had made, their purport was not intelligible.

"Thereafter he considered, as to why the discussion about monotheism is so conspicuous in India and why the Indian theologians and mystics of the ancient school do not disavow the Unity of God nor do they find any fault with the Unitarians, but their belief is perfect in this respect; on the other hand, the ignoramuses of the present age " the highwaymen in the path of God " who have established themselves for erudite and who, falling into the trances of polemics and molestation, and apostatizing through disavowal of the true proficient in God and monotheism, display resistance against all the words of Unitarianism, which are most evident from the glorious Quran and the authentic traditions of indubitable prophecy."

Dara Shikoh here mentions the four Vedas by name and states their hoary age. He quotes the Quran to say that prophets could be found in every tradition, and then continues:

"And the summum bonum of these four books, which contain all the secrets of the Path and the contemplative exercises of pure monotheism, are called the Upanekhats [Upanishads], and the people of that time have written commentaries with complete and diffusive interpretations thereon; and being still understood as the best part of their religious worship, they are always studied. And whereas this unsolicitous seeker after the Truth had in view the principle of the fundamental unity of the personality and not Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, and Sanskrit languages, he wanted to make without any worldly motive, in a clear style, an exact and literal translation of the Upanekhats into Persian. For it is a treasure of monotheism and there are few thoroughly conversant with it even among the Indians. Thereby he also wanted to solve the mystery which underlies their efforts to conceal it from the Muslims.

"And as at this period the city of Banaras, which is the centre of the sciences of this community, was in certain relations with this seeker of the Truth, he assembled together the pundits and the sannyasis, who were the most learned of their time and proficient in the Upanekhats in the year 1067 after Hijra; and thus every difficulty and every sublime topic which he had desired or thought and had looked for and not found, he obtained from the essences of the most ancient books, and without doubt or suspicion, these books are first of all heavenly books in point of time, and the source and the fountainhead of the ocean of unity, in conformity with the holy Quran.

"Happy is he, who having abandoned the prejudices of vile selfishness, sincerely and with the grace of God, renouncing all partiality, shall study and comprehend this translation entitled The Greatest Secret [Sirr-i-Akbar], knowing it to be a translation of the words of God. He shall become imperishable, fearless, unsolicitous, and eternally liberated."


olace of my death


  1. Great post.Learning different languages is hard but fun.We were able to grasps the culture of every languages we translate.A lost in Persian translation or any translation should not hinder us to know exactly about one's history and culture.Especially in the ever faster moving world of globalized business, successful information and technology transfer within multinational businesses can make the difference between win or lose.

  2. Refreshing. Muhammad SAW was sent as a reminder of that which came before. Indeed, the Upanishads and the Vedic scriptures are essentially tawhidi. The form of Islam is a flying carpet into a zone which is beyond form. Unfortunately, many of us stop at the form and worship Islam. This is a human issue. We have not explored the imaginal within us,. We thank Allah for the Sufis who have kept alive the fullness of the Muhammadi message, by becoming it!

    1. "We thank Allah for the Sufis who have kept alive the fullness of the Muhammadi message, by becoming it!"

      Beyond the Sharia, lies the awakening.