A fascinating new history of Dara Shukoh delves into the life, ideas of Mughal scion who would have been king
An immensely fascinating subject, Dara Shukoh was a modern intellectual: a practicing Sufi, scholar, theologian, poet, calligrapher, chronicler, builder, connoisseur of the arts, and an indefatigable evangelist of syncretic ideas that were centuries ahead of his time
Dara Shukoh was born in 1615 to Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. He would remain close to his father until the very end.
Dara Shukoh, the most adored son and proclaimed successor of Shah Jahan, was known to be a liberal, philosophical aristocrat.
Today, pitted against his pugnacious brother, the emperor Aurangzeb, Dara Shukoh is hailed as the good Mughal and anachronistically, the good Indian.
If Jahanara Begum hadn’t suffered burn injuries when her perfume ignited a fire; if Aurangzeb had arrived at Agra sooner after the accident; if he hadn't fallen out of favour with his father, Shah Jahan; if Dara Shukoh hadn’t replaced Aurangzeb in the move to seize Kandahar; if Aurangzeb didn’t feel that his older brother influenced his father’s decisions; if several other aspects of history had conspired differently — then Dara Shukoh would have succeeded Shah Jahan as Emperor of Hindustan.
Historians have long debated the implications of such a possibility. While the Mughal Empire prospered during Aurangzeb’s reign, the emperor himself was shrouded in infamy, notorious for being a thoroughly orthodox ruler — a tyrant who executed his own brother, tore down temples and abandoned the legacy of religious tolerance the empire was built upon. On the other hand, Dara Shukoh, Shah Jahan’s most adored son and his proclaimed successor, was known to be a liberal, philosophical aristocrat. If not the most military-minded ruler, he would at least have been one more readily accepted by his subjects.
But does that mean he would have made a good king?
“A benevolent, liberal and peace-loving monarch might earn the adulation of his subjects, but this wouldn't in any way qualify him to deal with internal strife or rebellions or protect his empire from foreign attacks. With a complex and multi-faceted personality such as Dara Shukoh, the net outcome is a tug-and-pull of myriad complicated, often conflicting forces,” says author Avik Chanda who explores the life and legacy of the eldest son of Shah Jahan and heir-apparent to the Mughal Empire in his latest work, Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King.
The author captures most of the major episodes in the prince's life, including his childhood — part of which was spent in imprisonment during the War of Succession that followed his grandfather, Emperor Jahangir's death — his marriage to Nadira Begum, and the time he spent away from books and philosophy as a commander in his father's army.
It all boils down to power, the author opines, suggesting that this was perhaps the sole reason for internal strife among the Mughal royals and their respective supporters. As for Dara Shukoh, “all notion of conflict is coloured by religious faith — or lack of it — and Aurangzeb used this as a weapon against Dara during their rivalry and later, the War of Succession.”
An immensely fascinating subject, Dara Shukoh was a modern intellectual, Chanda notes, “a practicing Sufi, scholar, theologian, poet, calligrapher, chronicler, builder, connoisseur of the arts, and an indefatigable evangelist of syncretic ideas that were centuries ahead of his time.”
Dara Shukoh’s contributions to history are therefore not to be sought on the battlefield or in politics but in the mysticism and pluralist ideology he advocated, which in turn find room in his works such as Majma-ul-Bahrain (The Mingling of Two Oceans) and Sirr-i-Akbar (The Great Secret). Sirr-i-Akbar is a translation of the principal Upanishads, from Sanskrit to Persian. It had few takers during the prince’s lifetime, Chanda remarks, and for a long time after his death, until “a French orientalist, Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron, chanced upon it, in the 18th century, during his time in India”. The scholar translated this text into Latin and upon reaching Europe, it became the cornerstone of Oriental renaissance. The work also influenced philosophers such as Arthur Schopenhauer, “and culminated in the formation of a new sphere of academic study that we've come to know as Indology”. What appears in the epilogue of the author’s work is this description of the chequered afterlife of Dara Shukoh.
Chanda, who has two collections of poetry, Jokhon Bideshe and Footnotes, to his name, notes that almost all the episodes where Dara Shukoh “gains theological insights, searches for higher philosophical or experiences an epiphany” have moved him, “first as I was reading them, and even later, while putting pen on paper.” “These instances, documented by Dara himself, have a strangely luminous, haunting quality,” he says.
Dara Shukoh was born in 1615 to Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. He would remain close to his father until the very end. Chanda remarks, “The mutual trust and love between father and son was indelible.”
“It'd be accurate to say that throughout his youth, Dara was the emperor's shadow, and in the final years of Shah Jahan's reign, before the War of Succession broke out, to a large extent Dara ruled the whole empire, by proxy.”
The prince stands out as an “obedient, dutiful and affectionate son,” in sharp contrast with the then prevalent Mughal father-son dynamic and power equations. What is also striking is that this camaraderie existed in a royal household in which every prince enjoyed a sense of imperial entitlement, “there was no concept of the natural right of ascension to the throne lying with the eldest prince.”
Through his historical non-fiction book, Chanda highlights that the War of Succession which led to the downfall of Dara Shukoh was “by far the most dramatic and far-reaching” but it was not the only one. “Following the death of Jahangir, Khurram became the emperor Shah Jahan, by orchestrating a very swift but nevertheless bloody purge of his brothers and other potential contenders to the Mughal throne. A similar struggle followed Alamgir's (Aurangzeb) death. The significance of Aurangzeb's triumph over Dara lies in its outcome — the direct impact of Alamgir's reign on the empire and its population, its aftermath and its legacy.”
Bad blood always existed between the two brothers, Alamgir and Dara Shukoh. Chanda draws attention to an incident that occurred early on in their lives when Aurangzeb was ambushed by a rogue elephant and was honoured by his father for showing great bravery during the attack. Even so, the young prince had “disparaging things” to say about his brothers and this antagonism only festered as time passed. It also extended to their sisters, “Jahanara became a vocal supporter of Dara while their other sister, Raushanara, sided firmly with Aurangzeb.”
Chanda is currently engaged in adding the final touches to a draft of a play on Dara Shukoh. He elaborates that today, pitted against the pugnacious emperor, Dara Shukoh is hailed as the 'good Mughal' and anachronistically, the 'good Indian.' He explains that Dara’s most renowned work Majma-ul-Bahrain, (The Mingling of Two Oceans) — where the two oceans in fact stand for Hindusim and Islam — reflects his dream and ethos which are in fact embedded in the title of the book. Yet, “360 years after his death, we are still very far from realising that dream.”
Avik Chanda's Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King is published by HarperCollins.
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