Thursday, July 6, 2017

A Sufi Prince and Martyr: Dara Shikoh

Dara Shikoh, was a Sufi martyr whose death changed the course of India's history and had a profound effect on Muslim-Hindu relations. 

Dara was killed by his brother Emperor Aurangzab as a punishment for being an apostate.

He wasn't one!
He was a seeker of Allah who went to forbidden places to understand our Creator and tried to create unity in the world. 
For his troubles like Sufi martyres before him, he was beheaded. 

The tension between the two polar opposites: a puritan strain and an inclusive strain-- is dramatically reflected in the 17th century — at the high noon of the Mughal Empire in India.

Two sons of the Emperor Shah Jehan presented us again with the two distinct models of South Asian Islam: Dara Shikoh was the inclusivist par excellence — while Aurangzeb was the exclusivist par excellence.

Dara Shukoh was a born poet, a virtuoso calligrapher and painter, apart from his being a sufi with the seal of royalty on him. 
Dara Shikoh was a mystic who spent his time with Sufis and Yogis, who enjoyed devotional music — and who oversaw the translation of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Upanishads.

Always a good Muslim, he never wished to abandon Islam — but to expand its boundaries.

On the other hand, Aurangzeb drew the boundaries tightly around Islam. He stood for a formal literal and orthodox Islam — and he lived in austerity. He spent his spare time reading the Qur'an.

The inevitable clash between Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb — and the total victory of Aurangzeb in 1658 — would cast shadows on Muslim society into the future and change the course of South Asian history.

The next centuries saw the depletion of compassion, vitality and learning in Muslim society. The middle of the 19th century and the advent of Western imperialism presented a major crisis for Muslim society.

Dara was ahead of his time, had he come into power: the Mughal dynasty may not have engaged in costly civil war with Hindu subjects; would not have persecuted Shias leading to independence of Deccan and Awadh---and the British may not have invaded India; weakened by its civil wars. 

Dara’s was a unique 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 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. 

The game of ifs can be played that if Dara had not lost; Puritanism would have been defeated and India would have blossomed under an Emperor who translated Upanishad.

Instead, the royal heir with eyes of his mother TajMahal and heart of a Sufi; died crying out to Allah; paying for the crime of being different and a Sufi!

Dara Shikoh’s quest for a universal Sufi ethic

The Mughals were sophisticated intellectuals, royal princes were schooled in Theology and philosophy; Dara as a crown prince displayed mystical tendencies and sought the company of dervishes like Budha before him. This was the most prosperous time in Mughal history and after his death, only ruin and civil wars lay ahead. 

DARA's initiation into Sufism:

At the age of 19, Dara Shikoh recovered from a serious illness after visiting Hazrat Mian Mir, the Sufi sage of Lahore. His faith in the power of saints and his interest in religion were firmly established. In 1640 he became a disciple of Mullah Shah, one of Mian Mir’s successors. It was in Lahore where he wrote a book containing biographies of Sufi saints. A biography of Mian Mir and his principal disciples followed two years later. He also wrote brief Sufi pamphlets, one of which was a reply to those who criticised him for his statements.Dara Shikoh was a follower of Lahore's famous Qadiri Sufi Saint Mian Mir, whom he was introduced to by Mullah Shah Badakhshi (Mian Mir's spiritual disciple and successor). 

Dara talking to Hindu holy men
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. 

Throughout this endeavor, 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. 

You dwell in the Ka'aba and in Somnath [a famous Shaivite Hindu temple]
And in the hearts of the enamoured lovers.

In his teenage, Dara was held hostage in his Grandfather Jahangir's palace; Jahangir was an heir of Emperor Akbar's pantheism and unitarian philophy, it is widely believed that Dara imbibed the toleran and intellectually curious spirit while there. 

He was accepted to be, in Sufi and non-Muslim circles, an incarnation of his great-grandfather Akbar the Great who also was an advocate of Wahdat-ul-Wajud. Dara Shukoh expresses the fact thus:
The wise see not a second in essence we and you are mere calling words,
 See One contained evident in many - See One hath formed in shapes many.

Wahdat-ul-Wajud postulates that, "The absolute is the One creator of all creatures and is pervading into all." Sheikh Ibn Irabi is accepted to be the founder of this doctrine though in itself, it is as old as the Upanishads. 

Dara expresses his motives for reading other mystical traditions in his Persian translation of the Upanishads, the Sirr ul-Akbar (‘The Great Secret’) thus:

Read them and decide for yourself if these are the words of an apostate or a lover of Allah.

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 was an accomplished poet, his collection of poems, the Diwan, also known as the Iksir-i 'Azam was wellread in his own time. Some of the verses from the Diwan, given below, suggest the train of Dara's mystical thought:

ShahJahan receiving Dara

On Monotheism [tauhid]
Look where you can, All is He,
God's face is ever face to face.

Whatever you behold except Him is the object of your fancy,

Things other than He have an existence like a mirage.
The existence of God is like a boundless ocean,

People are like forms and waves in its water.
Though I do not consider myself separate from Him,
Yet I do not consider myself God.
Whatever relation the drop bears with the ocean,
That I hold true in my belief, and nothing beyond.

We have not seen an atom separate from the Sun,

Every drop of water is the sea in itself.
With what name should one call the Truth?
Every name that exists is one of God's names.

On Divine Love;

O Thou, from whose very name rains Love abundant!
And from your message rains Love!
Whoever passes through Your street realizes
That indeed from the very door to the terrace of Your house rains l love!

On the Mystical Path

Turn to none except God,
The rosary and the sacred thread are but only a means to an end.
All this piety is conceit and hypocrisy,
How can it be worthy of our Beloved?.

Dara praying in Red Mosque
Kingship is easy, acquaint yourself with poverty,
Why should a drop become a pearl when it can transform itself into an ocean?.

Hands soiled with gold begin to stink,

How awful is the plight of the soul soiled with gold!
Day and night you hear of people dying,
You, too, have to die. How strange is your behaviour!.

The more a traveller is unencumbered,

The less he feels worried on his journey.
You, too, are a traveller in this world,
Take this as certain, if you are wakeful.
Drive egoism away from you,
For, like conceit and arrogance, it is also a burden.
So long as you live in this world, be independent,
The Qadri has warned you!
Whoever recognised this, carried the day,
He who lost himself, found Him.
And he who sought Him not within his own self,
Passed away, carrying his quest along with him.
The Qadri found his Beloved within his own self,
Being himself of good disposition, he won the favour of the Good.

To whatever object you may turn your face, He is in view,

Are you blind, for why do you assign Him to yourself?

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! ( sending Modi a translation!)

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’.

It's an accusation leveled 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 proceeded to detail the purpose behind translating the Upanishads in answering his critics.

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’.
Prince Dara opening a hindu temple

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 enamored 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.”
Dara visting Hazrat Mian Mir

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 criticizes self-styled ‘ulama who, ignoring the inner dimension of the faith, focus simply on external rituals and made Islam for appearance's sake only ( the wahhabi's would make an apperaence soon)

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 HaqNuma are shown by Dara to be similar to those used by the Hindu Tantriks and Yogis. These include astral healing and concentration on the centers 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.

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 in a sufi khaiqah

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 has 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.

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. 


Dara's Army

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.
Aurangzaib examining Dara's head

Dara's syncretic approach to religion drew the ire of Ulema which was exploited by his brother Aurangzaib.

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 powerful 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"

DARA for our times!

Dara meeting Hindu and Sikh holy men

Today the Hindu and Muslims have been radicalized to despise each other and spend billions amassing armies to annihilate their enemy population. Muslim wahhabi preachers call Hindu pagans and Neo-Hindu evangelists call Islam a destroyer of their civilization.
It didn't have to be this way if Dara's message had found a larger audience. We are still fighting Dara's fight with our eemis declaring Sufism to be apostacy!

It doesn't have to be this way now if we explore our respective faiths and acknowledge that we are all seekers.  Finding the unity of truth only weakens the one trademarking religion for divisions but it empowers true seekers. 


  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.