Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section VIII Mysticism, Religion and Reason – The Religious Journey

Canberra, 26 September 2020

From early childhood, Akbar was a practising Muslim and continued to be one—unquestioningly—into the early years of his rule. Even so, his inherent inquisitive nature made him wonder about the deeper religious thought and its underlying philosophy. Although he questioned these overall beliefs and religious functioning only infrequently in his youth, there is no doubt that the intricacies of deep-rooted religious belief intrigued him and he had a more than a passing interest in its philosophy. Akbar’s mind was always stirred by a thirst for knowledge, spreading from the mundane to the depth of religious belief. As he grew into middle age he struggled to find solace in the teachings of holy men and other religious scholars, gradually gravitating towards the comfort of the teachings of Sufi masters.

Psychic Disturbances

An inscription on the façade of the ‘Buland Darwaza’—the huge gateway to the mosque in Fatehpur-Sikri, built to celebrate victory in Gujarat—states, ‘the world is a bridge: pass over it, but build no house upon it’. The gateway is a structure which celebrates a purely worldly achievement of conquest and annexation, while the injunction is spiritual and a call to renouncement. This dichotomy symbolises, and is clearly indicative of, Akbar’s life as a whole.

Akabr’s life had been one of celebratory victories from the very beginning and continued exactly as he wanted it, except for the last few years; however, according to his own admission, he was unhappy—being habitually a melancholic introspective person. His spiritual injunctions throughout his adult life are dark and foreboding. It would seem that there was some deep-seated despondency in his inner mind that periodically disturbed him. Akbar was troubled by psychic disturbances from a young age, instances of which continued throughout his life. The first recorded such instance was in 1557, when Akbar was 15 years old. It is reliably reported that in the middle of the siege of Mankot, Akbar rode of alone into the desert, apparently to get away from the ‘presence of short-sighted men.’ Just five years later, when he was only 20 years of age and already an established and full-fledged king, he wrote about mortality in a dejected manner.

Akbar definitely had a streak of melancholia in him, which used to surface fairly regularly. He often claimed that his heart was distracted by opposing desires. Since these are recorded instances, there is speculation that Akbar suffered from some sort of nervous disorder and also that he was epileptic. The accounts of the Jesuit missionaries in his court and their reports to the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa seem to confirm these conjectures. Further, there is also evidence of family history—from the mother’s side—of genetic psychic disorders; a certain amount of eccentricity, in some bordering on madness. It is confirmed that his maternal uncle was insane at his death.

Some of Akbar’s own actions were very clearly suicidal, a number of occasions have been recorded when this tendency took over his behaviour. At times, extreme drunkenness forced this issue, although inebriation seems to have been only part of the trouble. There is no doubt that there was something preternatural about Akbar’s behaviour pattern. This could explain his preoccupation with religion and the mysticism associated with the Sufi movement.

The Mystical Bend of Mind

In his younger days, Akbar was inexorably drawn to mystical forms of religion. However, in later years, this affinity was tempered with a rational approach and the quest for ‘proof’. It is reliably reported that he used to get transported when the poems of Jalal ud-Din Rumi—the celebrated Sufi poet—used to be read out to him, with unconscious tears flowing down his cheeks. Akbar also used to meditate on his own early in the mornings, ‘gathering the bliss of the early hours of dawn’, as reported by Abul Fazl, his loyal historian. Akbar, no doubt, was a person of ecstatic faith and was also subject to mystical dreams and even hallucinations. In all his own statements and those of his chroniclers, there is a constant refrain of strange visions coming to soothe his weary spirit burdened with the cares of life.

Perhaps because of his mystical bend, Akbar had an affinity towards Sufism. Sufism was a mystical Muslim sect that was open and tolerant by nature, with an innate acceptance of the sensibilities of other religions and faiths. It was built on the perception of universal tolerance, sulh-i-kull; a concept that Akbar adopted as his guiding principle in matters of religion in his later years.

In order to understand the Emperor’s curiosity and questioning attitude, the state of the Islamic faith during his lifetime should be noted. Islam was just about finishing its first millennium and was a dynamic religion, open to question and debate. It was awaiting the arrival of the Mahdi, the predicted last prophet who was to arrive with new and more profound teachings and injunctions, which were supposed to rejuvenate a religion that was already pulsing with dynamic energy. It was normal in the learned Islamic circles to debate religious points of order, without anyone being blamed or accused of blasphemy. Akbar functioned fully within this spirit of the time.

Akbar’s family background—from both Genghis Khan and Timur—inclined him towards cultural openness and religious syncretism. There were some renowned mystics in his own family. The permissive environment of the time combined effectively with his family background to create an atmosphere of intellectual and mystical susceptibilities that in turn permitted Akbar to explore an open pathway of personal religious development.

The Ibadat Khana – A House of Worship

Akbar displayed a very highly developed sense of scepticism and therefore, for him, intellectual inquiry was an intensely earnest and personal pursuit. He looked for proof in everything, especially towards the latter half of his life when the search for evidence was a constant. This trait made him look at miraculous powers and the people who claimed it, with suspicion—for Akbar all such claims were incorrect, unless proven otherwise. He came to believe that miracles depended on the susceptibility and faith of the supplicant, not on the shrine or the holy man in front of whom the supplication was being made. Akbar’s primary intellectual interest was metaphysics and he was overly found of discourses on philosophy.  

On returning to Agra in January 1575 after the successful Bengal campaign, Akbar started the construction of an ‘Ibadat Khana’, a House of Worship. The structure was designed to accommodate learned persons representing various schools of Islamic theological and philosophical thought. There is no doubt that the idea was inspired by the achievements of the Karrani dynasty of Bengal in bringing about admirable religious interaction, debate, discussion and syncretism. The concept was to provide a forum for religious scholars to discuss even the most obtuse issues of religion and religious philosophy. The practice seems to have been discontinued after one year and then restarted in 1578 with scholars from other faiths also being invited to participate.

The actual building that was constructed as the Ibadat Khana has not been identified in Fatehpur-Sikri. It is also speculated that the venue for the meetings shifted frequently, being held in different buildings that were convenient and designated the Ibadat Khana for the duration. There is also an on-going debate that the building currently identified as the Diwan-i-Khas was actually the Ibadat Khana, because of its design. The design of this building crystallises Akbar’s concept of gathering wisdom from all quarters, while at the same time dispensing his own wisdom to all parts of the Empire and the world. Since the architectural plan of the actual Ibadat Khana is not precisely described in any of the available chronicles, no building can be identified with certainty as having been the celebrated House of Worship. Some reports suggest that the building was constructed near the abandoned hermitage of Shaikh Abdullah Niyazi, a disciple of Shaikh Salim Chishti, who had earlier retired to Sirhind. However, even if this report is indeed correct, no visible trace of the building exists today.

In its initial days, the forum was open only to Muslim scholars; Akbar’s intention being to resolve differences between the various warring Islamic sects.

‘My sole object, oh wise mullahs,’ said Akbar to the assembly, ‘is to ascertain the truth, to find out and disclose the principles of genuine religion, and trace it to its divine origin.’

—as quoted in Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 189. 

Although Akbar was prone to rationalise his thoughts, in the days when the Ibadat Khana was functional, he was still a practising Muslim. However, there are no records that provide information regarding how long the building was used in the manner initially prescribed. The mullahs argued amongst themselves so raucously that instead of finding religion and truth within the Islamic fold, Akbar was completely turned away from the practices of the Muslim religion. The actual switch from Islam took place at a much later stage, but it is certain that the separation of paths between the Emperor and his birth-religion started at this time. However, Akbar never formally renounced Islam, even when he was not practising the religion, and outwardly remained faithful as an orthodox Muslim. There is also speculation that the Ibadat Khana, if it was actually built, was pulled down on Akbar’s orders since he was exasperated by the controversies and animosity between the innumerable sects and schools of Islam.

THE RELIGIOUS JOURNEY

By the time he decided to shut down his futile effort to establish a truly secular ‘House of Worship’, Akbar was very much inclined towards rational, and from an Islamic perspective, unorthodox speculations. These forays into unconventional reflections were heavily influenced by the Sufi School of religious thought, which subscribed to pantheistic ideas. However, Akbar continued to be a believing, if somewhat sceptical, Muslim. In keeping with this belief, the House of Worship was open in the initial years only to representatives of the diverse sections of Islamic thought. It was only in 1578 that it was thrown open to Hindu and Christian teachers, as well as to scholarly Jains, Jews, Zoroastrians, the ancient school of Charavakas and even an obscure Semitic sect called the Sabians.

Abul Fazl records an extraordinary event that took place in 1578. It seems that Akbar, while on a hunt near Bhera on the banks of the River Jhelum in the Punjab, suddenly became ‘frenzied’; and was physically like a possessed person. Thereafter the Emperor fell into a trance and delirium; the delirium was sufficiently severe and serious enough for his mother Hamida Banu Begum to rush to Bhera from Fatehpur-Sikri. The ‘illness’ however, seems to have been short-lived and Akbar was back to normal very soon after the attack. It is highly likely that he had suffered a particularly severe epileptic seizure. Akbar himself acknowledged that the incident had a profound and lasting influence on his thought process. The opening up of the House of Worship to scholars from all religions coincides with this episode, although it cannot be determined whether or not it influenced the decision. In any case, the entire attempt at creating a forum for religious debate did not last long and within the next couple of years the building became disused. The secular experiment did not last long.

The debates, whenever they took place, moved to private halls of audience and were more personal in nature when the Emperor participated. By 1581-82, religious exclusivism became intolerable for Akbar and he was definitely on the road to becoming an apostate, renouncing the belief in Islam. This development coincides with his victorious Kabul campaign that had finally laid to rest any lingering anxiety that he may have had regarding his hold on the throne of Agra. He must have felt that his kingship was no more in need of the approval of the orthodox mullahs to sustain. Any minor doubts that he may have entertained regarding his manifest destiny as the Emperor of Hindustan would have been put to rest.

At this juncture, Akbar felt at liberty to implement a plan that he had been nurturing in his fertile mind for some time. He had been dreaming of establishing a universal religion that he would impose on the entire Empire—naming it the Divine Faith or Divine Monotheism.

‘We associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions and thus derive profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations,’ stated Akbar in a letter addressed to Philip II of Spain.

—as quoted in Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 192.

For Akbar, seeking God had become equated to seeking the Truth.

Early Days

When he was still a boy-king, his guardian and mentor, Biram Khan, did not approve of Akbar’s individualistic religious thought. Under these circumstances, Akbar was more liable to ride off alone to contemplate while engulfed in moods of depression and dissatisfaction. Till around 1575, when the House of Worship was functioning well, he was a devout Muslim and far too busy and involved in military conquests to devote sufficient time to personal religious quest. Even so, as far back as 1562, Akbar had embarked on a spiritual journey of religious tolerance, which was fairly unorthodox for the time. With his inborn curiosity and broad outlook, Akbar found it easy and natural to adopt an attitude of ‘live and let live’ in matters of religion. Accordingly, in 1563, he abolished the ‘jizya’ and the Pilgrim Tax that had been levied on non-Muslims for centuries of Islamic rule in the sub-continent.

Abolition of these taxes were revolutionary, to say the least. It is also certain that in his mind Akbar felt that these taxes were unjust. However, two more reasons could have been influential in his decision. First, by this time people of all religions in the country had started to show goodwill towards the emperor, thereby reducing the need to oppress and demean them; and second, the royal coffers were sufficiently cashed up and did not need the extra revenue. Therefore, it was a combination of factors that led to Akbar taking this progressive step.

The Decree of Infallibility

On 3rd September 1579, at a meeting at the House of Worship, a document was made public by the senior religious advisor, Shaikh Mubarak, under the instructions of the Emperor. By this time Akbar was in total and open revolt against the Ulema, a body of Muslim scholars who are recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law and theology. Through the document, Akbar ‘declared himself to be the spiritual as well as the secular head of the State and to be authorised in his own person to make any such changes in the Law (Sharia) as he deemed to be in conformity with the general welfare of his subjects’. This declaration is considered to have made the Emperor the final authority in matters of legal religious doubts and the interpretation of religious law. There is a nuanced difference between this interpretation of the decree and what it actually meant. Akbar brought about this change because the religious law-makers were unable to enforce a uniform and equitable interpretation of the Sharia, leaving it open to the caprices of individual Ulema. The decree only gave Akbar the power to be the decision-maker when the Ulema were at variance with each other in interpreting a particular law.

This act of Akbar has a striking resemblance to what Henry VIII of England, an almost contemporary ruler, had done to free himself from the laws of the Catholic Church of Rome, although the reasons to initiate the actions were completely different. By now Akbar was convinced that executive powers of punishment should not be vested in bigots and self-seekers who swelled the ranks of the Ulema. He decided that only a king of liberal propensities should be given the authority to inflict punishment, which was also an unconventional stance to assume, especially from an Islamic perspective.

The fact remains that the Decree did not make any tangible difference to the administration of the Quranic Law—it just marked a turning point in Akbar’s religious evolution; a recognisable move away from the oppressive orthodoxy of the Sunni Ulema and clerics. Akbar’s position and interference was purely judicial and legislative, he had not impinged on the religious aspects of the law. It is not possible to determine whether or not any disputes were actually brought before Akbar for him to decide or even whether he issued any orders contradicting the Ulema.

The importance of the Decree lies in a completely different area. It may not have ushered in any visible changes, but the psychological impact on both the Emperor and the people was enormous. In one stroke it modified forever the concept of kingship that had so far been accepted in Islamic thought—where the political leadership was always hedged in and controlled by the religious leadership, who interpreted the law. Akbar had deftly managed to place himself outside and above these constricting and controlling influences—he had managed to concentrate power on himself with no external constraints.

Interaction with Other Faiths

Hinduism

The majority of Akbar’s subjects were followers of Hinduism and the first adversary that he had to defeat to claim the throne of his father was also a Hindu king. Subsequently, he had married a number of Rajput princesses and being an inquisitive observer had become conversant with the practices of the Hindu faith. However, his opinions about the Hindu religion were greatly influenced by Birbal, who had become his constant companion for a number of years. Birbal’s closeness to the Emperor was not liked by Badauni who was a completely biased chronicler. In fact Badauni’s bias against Birbal comes through clearly in his report that Birbal exercised an ‘unsettling’ influenced on Akbar and made him move away from his earlier belief in Islam. Considering Akbar’s strong character and wilful nature, this assertion seems unfounded.

Akbar also had a group of learned Brahmins in court who initiated him into the Hindu religious philosophy and social customs. Irrespective of the debate regarding the source of the influence, it is a fact that Hinduism played a great part in his life. In fact, Damodar Bhatt a learned Brahmin, is mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari. Akbar also had a number of Hindu religious texts translated into Persian, and provided extensive patronage to Hindu scholars. While Akbar admired some aspects of Hinduism, he was also a vehement critic of some Hindu customs that he did not approve of, even attempting to reform the religion at one stage. He was inclined to accept the philosophical arguments put forward in Vedanta since it aligned with his own views.

There is not much detail available regarding Akbar’s interaction with the Sikh religion. However, it is certain that he visited Guru Amar Das during one of his expeditions to Lahore. He also visited Guru Arjun on more than one occasion. On one occasion it is recorded that he exempted the revenue of the entire Punjab because of an on-going famine, at the Guru’s request.

Jainism

From the beginning of his rule Akbar had established contact with learned Jain teachers, being particularly influenced by Padmasundara who was acknowledged as a particularly learned seer. He interacted with all the different Jain sects at some time or the other, continuing philosophical discussions even while out on military campaigns. Akbar was greatly influenced by Jain philosophy and this influence is considered fundamental to his support for religious liberty for non-Muslims in his Empire. Akbar also banned animal slaughter in the kingdom for six months of the year, although its enforcement was extremely lax. In a similar manner, some reports claim that the freedom to practice any religion was also merely lip-service, although it is more difficult to verify this claim accurately.  

The stress on ‘ahimsa’, non-violence, which is a centrepiece of Jain philosophy seems to have appealed to Akbar. However, the attraction for the Emperor was in very broad manner and not in the narrow and focused manner of the Jain acceptance of the concept for a selfish reason to be ‘kind to one’s own self’. Akbar himself expressed his wish to leave meat-eating many times, but at the same time he felt that becoming a vegetarian was not a viable option for an Emperor because of social necessities—neither did he at any time try to reform meat-eaters. He gave a number of grants through official edicts for the maintenance of Jain monasteries, while also prohibiting the killing of animals on specific days of special significance to the Jain community.

Zoroastrianism

In Akbar’s outward show of free religious belief, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism figured pre-eminently. Although Akbar wore the sacred thread of the Zoroastrians for a period of time and their priests claimed that the Emperor had converted, there is no evidence to corroborate this claim. He was introduced to the fundamentals of the religion in Navsari in Gujarat during the 1573 campaign and was sufficiently impressed with the philosophy of the religion to have ordered a perpetual fire to be kept lit in court, according to the custom of ancient Persian kings.

Akbar did conduct both fire and Sun worship—one adapted from Zoroastrianism and the other from Hinduism. Acceptance of both seems to have stemmed from his natural aversion to idol-worship. However, he set aside the dualistic concept of the Zoroastrian faith based on the doctrine of a conflict between the powers of light and darkness. In terms of Sun worship, he believed that a special grace connected the Sun to the king and Sun was worshipped as the giver of life rather than as the fire of light as conceived in Zoroastrianism.

Sufism

Sufism, the liberal form of Islamic philosophy, laid emphasis on the spirit of the religion than its form. Sufism focused on examining the relationship of life with reality rather than concentrating on the outward manifestations of religious observance. The same concept was expressed very clearly by the Vedantist Hindus in India. The Sufi philosophers contemplate true knowledge, normally as individualistic practice within a doctrine based on love. This concept is comparable to the means adopted by the Hindu ‘Bhakti’ movement to reach God. Similarly, both movements believed in negating bigotry while accepting that an inherent appreciation of beauty in all forms was necessary to enhance spiritual awakening. Within this broad acquiescence, music was obviously not forbidden.

It would seem that Akbar was born to be a practising Sufi. His outlook on life was the same as an adherent of Sufism or the Bhakti movement—an intense search for the truth, which would take him closer to God and finally facilitate a merger with the Supreme Being. Akbar was a mystic and refused to believe the prosaic and inflexible principles that outwardly governed established religions. His outlook on life admittedly was vague, but it was intensely private and developed on his own. Since Humayun was particularly attached to the Sufi philosophy, Akbar was fortunate to spend his early life and limited education in an atmosphere of liberalism and Sufi mysticism. By nature Akbar was meditative, at times in a melancholic manner and Sufism fitted this mould. Throughout his life Akbar displayed a distinct vein of Sufism, backed by a tendency to rationalise all actions and debates.

Christianity

The Christian chronicles state that St Thomas preached the Gospel in the North-West of the sub-continent during the 1st century. However, when the Parthians were overthrown by the Kushans, the Christian belief went into oblivion in the region, though well-established groups of Christians thrived in the Deep South of the Peninsula— St Thomas had initially arrived in this region. It took the next millennium and half for Christianity to make its way back to North India and the territories ruled by the Mughals, much after the Portuguese had established a foothold on the Western Coast.

Akbar’s earliest contact with Christianity was through the Portuguese in 1573, during the siege of Surat. Subsequently he had contact with the Jesuit missionaries in Bengal during 1576-77. In 1578, the first Christian priest, Father Pereira, arrived at the royal court in Fatehpur-Sikri and is reported to have been inducted into the House of Worship meetings. Unfortunately no record of the debates, that must have been held, have survived, leaving no records to understand the nature of the discussions. However, these meagre contacts aroused Akbar’s inherent inquisitiveness sufficiently for him to write an imperial order to the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa to send two learned priests to him, with books and Gospels; because he wished to, ‘study and learn the Law and what is best and most perfect in it’. In 1580, three priests arrived, including Antony Monserrate mentioned in an earlier chapter.

By this time the Ulema were already discredited in Akbar’s eyes and he had become less confirming to Islamic practices and more eclectic with the Sufi influence becoming increasing apparent. Akbar was an avid student of comparative religion, always trying to assess new philosophies to determine whether or not they would better fit and satisfy his rational mind, more than what he had already studied and imbibed. Accordingly, he inducted the new priests to the debates in the House of Worship. It is also reported that, at least outwardly, he accepted the rituals of Christianity—kissing the Gospel and even attending church service. He was personally cordial to the Jesuit priests and also gave them full liberty to preach and convert. The priests reported that the Emperor was a rationalist, looking at all traditions through the prism of reason in an effort to view everything from a higher plane. It is obvious that these priests were unable to convince Akbar of the religious doctrine that they preached and went back to Goa without having made much headway.

He had another priest come to the court in 1590 but was still unable to get a clear knowledge or insight into Christianity. Since his curiosity was not satisfied, he asked the Portuguese Viceroy in Goa to send a third delegation in 1594. He also volunteered to learn Portuguese, since he felt that the inept translation was at the core of his lingering doubts. The third delegation, 1595-98, emphatically states that Akbar had by this time completely repudiated Islam. However, Akbar did not convert to any other religion and in his last years had started to draw away from the Jesuit fathers. There is also no evidence to suggest that he ever contemplated converting to Christianity, although he was definitely keen to get a clear idea of the Christian doctrine. Akbar’s belief seems to have been that Christ was a ‘great man’ like so many saints of different religious faiths, who could infuse complete faith into a person. The Christian doctrine did not answer his ‘rational’ doubts; for example it could not answer his simple question—if Jesus was indeed ‘God’, or the son of God, why did he not come down from the cross? Akbar remained a rational sceptic of all such doctrine that did not provide believable answers to simple questions.

Akbar’s Religion and Philosophy

Akbar was a complex person, a man who loved physical action but was also an individual with a consuming curiosity to understand inexplicable things and an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He was also fortunate to have been blessed with an innate simplicity of mind and was obsessed with justice, as he perceived it. These qualities made him instinctively raise his non-Muslim subjects, who were the majority, to equal status with the Muslims without any noticeable bias in their treatment. During Akbar’s reign the non-Muslims of the land were nearer to equal status than at any other time of Muslim rule, before or after his time, in the sub-continent. Considering the complexity and evolutionary nature of Akbar’s religious policy, it is difficult to gauge as to which religion influenced him most.

‘He sought for a satisfying answer to the query which all Prophets had tried to answer; what is life’s origin and end; what is the cause of sorrow and how can it be removed? His was not the questioning of an intellectual. It was the result of a constant oppression by life’s sorrows and frustrations and an eagerness to be led into a more complete life with a full understanding of the why and therefore of one’s self.’

— R. Krishnamurti,

Akbar: The Religious Aspect, p. 97.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2020]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Defence Analyst specialising in air power and national security. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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