Indian History Part 81 Akbar Section VIII: Mysticism, Religion and Reason – The Divine Faith – A Universal Religion

Canberra, 21 October 2020

Even though the squabbling amongst the religious scholars and learned seers reached a crescendo that vexed him, especially in the debates in makeshift Houses of Worship, Akbar ensured that he held fast to his own vision regarding religion. While he was becoming exasperated with the differences in religious thought that erupted into vociferous accusations and partisan attitudes, internally in his mind Akbar was creating a Faith, which would be a movement that supported his maturing concept of a secular ‘religion’ based on the infallibility of the king. He would go on to name this Faith, the Din-i-Illahi, the Divine Faith.

Akbar’s enunciation of this revolutionary concept was misunderstood and opposed by religious teachers and leaders of all hues. However, Akbar genuinely believed that there was a space for a central point of convergence to distil the different religious thoughts into a coherent whole, within which each religion could remain true to its own beliefs and practices. This was a lofty ideal and even considering the high status of the Emperor, its implementation would be a risky undertaking. Akbar was acutely aware of this situation and accordingly, the reforms that were needed to embed the revolutionary Faith were introduced at a gentle pace. It is obvious that the impetuous Emperor would have exercised a great deal of restraint—after all, Akbar was a man of action throughout his life.

The Slow Process

The process was well thought through. He first took control of the Islamic religious theory and philosophy, clearly establishing his authority as the ultimate arbiter in all religious matters. Next he stepped outside the embrace of Islam without renouncing it. The third step was for Akbar to become the converging point for the hoped for synthesis of religions to form the Divine Faith. Akbar set in motion the process openly on 26 June 1579, a Friday, and also the birth anniversary of the Prophet Muhammad. That day he personally read out the Friday sermon at the great mosque in Fatehpur-Sikri rather than have the Imam read it out, as was the usual custom. He also recited a poem, specially written for the occasion by Faizi.

‘He [Akbar] merely recited a short verse composed for the occasion by Faizi, the poet brother of Abul Fazl:

The Lord who gave us sovereignty,

Who gave us a wise heart and a strong arm,

Who guided us in equity and justice,

And drove from our thoughts all save equity,

His description is higher than the range of thoguth,

Exalted is His majesty—Allahu Akbar!

— as quoted in Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 202. 

The invocation at the end, ‘Allahu Akbar’, actually means ‘God is Great’; however in this case it could also be taken to mean that Akbar the Emperor is God. According to Eraly, along with Akbar’s spiritual explorations, which was not a secret, for the clergy and the orthodox Muslims the reading ‘sounded like a clap of thunder warning them of the storm about to burst over them’. Obviously the declaration created a commotion and accusations were brought against Akbar that he was seeking to be equated to God. A definitive controversy erupted in the religious circles.

There are two versions of Akbar’s reaction to the accusations. His devoted fan and chronicler Abul Fazl states that the Emperor was dismayed, as he could not believe that he was being accused of being the godhead. This explanation is not credible. The second version is that it cannot be believed that Akbar was unaware of the double meaning of the turn of phrase that was used. This explanation is more acceptable, especially since Akbar did not retreat from his avowed position, which would have been the most likely reaction if indeed he had been caught by surprise. In September, he obtained from the senior Ulema the document, referred to in the previous chapter as the ‘Decree of Infallibility’, which made him the final arbiter in all matters of religion. The words of the Decree did not position the Emperor above the religious edicts. However, in practice it could be manipulated to make an absolute monarch’s word prevail at all times—a situation that his critics already knew all too well.

Religious antagonism against the Emperor gradually started to come to the fore. Ironically the challenge emanated not from the reclusive orthodox Muslim hermits and seers, but from the religious elite who held positions of power and influence in the state machinery, and functioned as the interface of religion, politics and executive power. Such a power base was inevitable in an overtly theocratic state. The elite feared that Akbar was in the process of dismantling their religion-sanctioned influence within the kingdom. This powerful and orthodox lobby now hit back, accusing Akbar of apostasy—the renunciation of a religious faith—and having converted to Hinduism.

‘The ground for this improper notion was that the prince out of his wide tolerance had received Hindu sages into his intimacy, and had increased the rank of Hindus for administrative reasons, and had for the good of the country showed them kindness.’

—Abul Fazl, as quoted in Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 205.

Consolidation

The charge of apostasy against Akbar was not tenable. He was still a Muslim, although he may not have been a strict practising adherent of the religion. To counter the charges, Akbar undertook yet another pilgrimage to the tomb of Khwaja Moin ud-Din Chishti in Ajmer; the last time in his life that he did so. The power wielded by the religion and the religious elite in Islamic theocracies, then as now, is evident in this single episode. Even an absolute monarch like Akbar could not fully lay aside religious interference in the administration and had to take personal action to mollify the orthodoxy and ameliorate the tense situation. However, even while assuaging religious sentiments and re-establishing his Islamic identity, Akbar was rapidly moving away from Islamic practices. He was busy formulating a new Faith, ably assisted in the scheme by Shaikh Taj ud-Din, a reputed Sufi saint. Akbar was introspecting to create a creed for himself and ‘his people’.

The Decree of Infallibility had firmly established Akbar as the undisputed religious head of the Empire about two years back. He was secure as the absolute monarch, ruling one of the largest empires in the world at that time. Even though the enterprise was risky in the Islamic world, the Emperor launched his new Faith, the Din-i-Illahi in 1582. While the announcement was on a particular date in 1582, the origin of the Faith remains obscure, since the actual setting up of the creed cannot be definitely traced to a specific date or initiative. It is obvious, it had been percolating and taking shape in Akbar’s mind for a long time.

Ala ud-Din Khilji’s New Religion

Early in the 14th century, Ala ud-Din Khilji had considered creating a new faith, although the planning did not proceed beyond the conceptual stage. However, the motivation for Khilji was completely different from the impetus for Akbar. Ala ud-Din did not have even peripheral interest in religion; he was not a thinker or even slightly inclined towards philosophy. His motivation to create a new religion was to gain fame as the founder of a new sect, which he proposed to spread by the sword.

Akbar on the other hand, although not above the quest for personal glory, conceived Din-i-Illahi at the culmination of a long and sincere study of religions. His fundamental aim in doing so was laudable—it was to end the endemic communal hatred, discord and division that plagued his Empire. This was a new vision for a unified and secular kingdom.  

Objections

After the formal announcement, Akbar gathered all his nobles at Fatehpur-Sikri and gave them an explanation of the need for the new Faith and its intricacies, asking subsequently for their opinion. Not wanting to displease Akbar and in order to be polite, all of them agreed with the Emperor. According to Badauni, only Raja Bhagwan Das of Amber dissented. It is also reported that after a few years his nephew and nominated successor, Raja Man Singh, also demurred from accepting the edicts of the Faith for the same reasons as his uncle.

The orthodox Muslims reacted with dismay, which soon turned to fury. The lay priests in mofussil towns and the rural hinterland started to ridicule Akbar, stating that he aspired to be God. This accusation is patently unfair—Akbar never claimed to be the godhead or even a prophet. On the other hand, Akbar was also dismissive of any criticism, disdaining to entertain any questions that even hinted at doubting his position as the spiritual guide of his people. Men who expressed contrary opinions to that of the Emperor, gradually fell from grace; a sure method to ensure a respectful silence, at least in court.

Din-i-Illahi Explained

So what was this new Faith, Din-i-Illahi often mentioned as Din Illahi, the Divine Faith? First and foremost, Din-i-Illahi could not be considered a ‘religion’ since it did not provide the proverbial crutch of ‘faith’ to the lay follower, which is essentially the mainstay of all religions. The Divine Faith appealed to the ‘reason’ of a person and was more concerned with socio-political issues than with the challenges of faith and religiosity. Akbar was the nucleus and the reason for its existence, and veneration of the Emperor its leitmotif. The Faith was more like a club of ‘like-minded’ persons.

The ritual for admittance into the Faith entrenched the supremacy of the Emperor and established a personality cult. Akbar was the chosen one of God, although any mention of similarities to a ‘prophet’ was avoided. A novice was required to remove his headgear and place his head on Akbar’s feet; he would then be raised up by the Emperor, his headgear placed on his head and a ‘Shast’—a round pendent with the words ‘Allahu-Akbar’ engraved on it—would be given to him.

The Faith emphasised the belief in one God and encouraged adherents to adopt either the Sun or the Moon as outward symbols through which to honour God. A cardinal principle, which was repeatedly emphasised in all discussions and advised by the Emperor himself, was of religious toleration and the need to follow the Universal Law of Peace in regard to all matters of religion. There was also an injunction that members should ‘endeavour’ to abstain from eating meat. From time to time Akbar indicated what he considered to be virtues, which were then assiduously practised by the more ‘earnest’ members. Essentially, Din-i-Illahi was a work in progress, practised by a band of people who were Akbar’s kindred spirits, who directed them. The primary condition was to be able to search for and recognise the truth, which was inherent in all religions, which therefore made it necessary for members to carry out a comparative study of common religions. No one had to formally give up his own religion in order to be a practising member of Din-i-Illahi. Although the Faith was built around him, Akbar did not consider himself to be the prophet of the Faith—he continued to be a searcher of the truth till the very end.

Din-i-Illahi, in its conception and practice, was never meant to be institutionalised with a set of prescribed beliefs and practices to be followed by members; therefore it was never organised as a religion. However, it is true that over a period of time Akbar was given a halo of spirituality and looked upon with veneration, especially by the followers of the Faith.

The vagueness of the fundamentals of the Faith doomed it to failure from its very inception. As it meandered along, completely controlled by the whims and fancies of one man—albeit a man of considerable spiritual development and with a fertile, imaginative and inquisitive mind of his own—the Faith did not gather and compile any scriptures, no formal priesthood was established and no attempt was made to proselytise the Faith/Religion. Some contemporary reports mention bribery being used to induce people to become members of the Faith. These are blatantly incorrect assessments. Akbar was vehemently opposed to this idea, as reported even by Badauni, who was completely biased against the founding of Din-i-Illahi and at one stage even accused the Emperor of becoming a non-Muslim.

A number of writings by Englishmen have given a false impression of the Faith as being rigid, of people being forced to ‘convert’ etc. These reports must be discarded as untrue figments since these foreigners were unfamiliar with the culture and languages of the sub-continent and therefore tended to interpret information wrongly. [This common failing of the Western observers/chroniclers continues to plague the understanding of Indian history. Further, their over-reliance on the Persian records to narrate medieval history, at the cost of completely discarding local records in the vernacular, has also influenced and skewed the opinions of generations of historians, even in the post-Independence era.] It is certain that the foreign chroniclers confused adherents of some other sects with those of Din-i-Illahi, thereby almost permanently and completely obscuring the narrative regarding the reality of the Faith.

There is no doubt that Akbar was revered as a spiritual and even religious leader by a large number of people, even outside of the Faith. However, his tentativeness in conceptualising and propagating the ideas of the Faith was one of the fundamental reasons for it not spreading as readily as it should have—especially considering the Emperor’s stature and complete control over all temporal and spiritual matters of the Empire. Akbar, on principle, would not interfere with anyone’s religion and made absolutely no effort to have Din-i-Illahi entrenched in the kingdom. In fact, a deeper analysis brings out a doubt—it is not even certain that any large groups outside the court even knew about Din-i-Illahi, much less the more intricate details of the Faith. The people who knew something about the Faith only considered it yet another of the Emperor’s fads and a means to win royal favour.

Din-i-Illahi had the potential, through its inclusive secular orientation and emphasis on rational thinking, to modernise the society of the Indian sub-continent. The window for capitalising on this opportunity was fleeting and Akbar failed to grasp and take advantage of it, helplessly watching the window close in front of his eyes. The Faith existed as long as Akbar lived, when he died, inevitably, the Faith also died. On Akbar’s death Din-i-Illahi vanished, unsung and unappreciated.

‘Din Illahi, a faith without passion, a cult without a God, was not for the masses, for people needed their gods and goddesses, their prayers and rituals, penances and festivals, to anchor their lives. Akbar evidently meant to keep Din Illahi exclusive to a small, closed fraternity of intimates and true adherents, a core group not divided by conflicting religious loyalties, but united in their devotion to the emperor.’

—Abraham Eraly,

Emperors of the Peacock Throne, p. 211. 

An Emperor’s Religious Philosophy

Akbar’s religious philosophy could be termed Tauhid-i-Illahi, Divine Monotheism. It was not organised or formally inaugurated at any particular time, but was perceived and evolved over the years as part of his quest for the truth. Din-i-Illahi did contain, and also reflected, some amount of his personal views, but the entirety of his religious interpretations and concepts were not incorporated into the Faith. Akbar, a confirmed monotheist, was not an agnostic and conceived of God as a Force, a Power, an Essence, as well as a Being. He was neither an atheist nor a complete rationalist, although he set great store by ‘reason’. Akbar subscribed to the Sufi and Vedanta belief, or doctrine—considering God as a Being apart from the world, and yet one with it in His manifestation, with the individual being part of Him.

He [Akbar] said, ‘A man is the disciple of his own reason. If it has naturally a good lustre, it becomes itself his director and if it gains under the direction of a higher mind, it is still a guide’.

—R. Krishnamurti,

Akbar: The Religious Aspect, p. 149.

Akbar rejected the traditional Muslim belief of pre-ordained justice of punishment in Hell or reward in Heaven, as well as the concept of judgement and resurrection. His rational mind rebelled against these concepts. Towards the later part of his life, some of his discourses indicate that Akbar had started to accept the transmigration of the soul and the idea of its gradual evolution from lower forms of life to higher forms.

Although he was a practising Muslim in his younger days, from around 1575, he gradually parted ways with Islam. He had already outgrown anthropomorphic deities and preferred to face nature on his own, starting to believe in ceremonial worship of the Sun and Fire. The worship or adoration of the Sun and Fire was not meant deify them, but to remind him of the Creator, God, who remained the Great Mystery. The Sun and Fire were the sources of inspiration and aligned him with the Infinite, providing a clearer appreciation of God.

Many historians, both contemporary and modern, have tried to prove that Akbar abjured Islam—that he converted to becoming a Christian, Jain, Hindu etc. There is absolutely no proof or reason to believe these speculations that he repudiated Islam or converted to another religion. When directly accused of un-Islamic activities, Akbar is reported to have replied in verse—stating that any lengthy discourse on the matter was unbecoming:

‘Of God, people have said

That he has a son;

Of the Prophet they have said

That He was a sorcerer,

Neither God nor the Prophet

Has escaped the slander of men,

Much less I.’

The truth about Akbar’s religious beliefs lies somewhere in between. He could not ‘belong’ to any one religion, since his character was not attuned to blindly follow the injunctions to confirm to the ‘norm’. It was the religious orthodoxy of Islam that Akbar could not tolerate and therefore made him move away, it was not the religion per se that repudiated him.

The question that needs to be asked, and answered, to understand Akbar’s religiosity is, ‘what was Akbar’s standpoint on demonstrated religion’? If a religious label has to be given to Akbar, the only one that would fit in most ways would be to view him as a Theosophist. A Theosophist is someone who follows theosophy, which in turn means—any of the various philosophies professing to achieve a knowledge of God by spiritual ecstasy, direct intuition, or special individual relations, especially modern movements following Hindu and Buddhist teachings and seeking universal brotherhood. In most ways, Akbar could be considered the quintessential Theosophist. He did not give up his own religion, but saw the need to do a comparative study of religions and then synthesise them to fit his unique internal needs. This process seems to have provided him with a satisfactory philosophy of life.

‘… if properly understood, he [Akbar] makes a distinction between formal conformity to a religion and a real living faith, and avers that formerly when he was not a true Muslim he persecuted men and foolishly deemed it Islam. But later he perceived the injustice and folly of such an act and understood that while one was not a real Muslim but a narrow-minded conformist, it was improper to convert others to that same dead and futile type of religiosity.’

—R. Krishnamurti,

Akbar: The Religious Aspect, p. 167.

© [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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