Miniature painting of Dara Shukoh by Chitraman, Circa 1640 (Photo: Getty Images)
WHAT MIGHT HAVE happened had Dara Shukoh and not Aurangzeb seized the throne in 1658? This is a favourite thought experiment in our times. It often accompanies other related questions: Would the prince who hobnobbed with ascetics and Sanskrit scholars have ushered in an era of social harmony and prosperity? And then, following this line of thought, would the Mughal empire perhaps not have fragmented as precipitously as it did after Aurangzeb Alamgir’s death in 1707?
Such counterfactual queries often assume that the 17th century was the crucial link in the chain that connects to the present. But there is no saying whether either Dara or Aurangzeb could have foreseen and stemmed the broader issues underlying the shrinkage and decentralisation of the Mughal empire. Moreover, the East India Company took root in Bengal through an intricate series of historical contingencies. There might conceivably have arisen in its stead a range of other possibilities—a more durable Maratha empire, or, as the historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam suggests, a greater Persianate empire, if after the sack of Delhi, Nadir Shah had stayed in India instead of returning to Iran.
But none of this addresses what Dara Shukoh would have been like as a ruler. And here, even many of those who are sympathetic to the prince, hesitate a bit. Yes, he was intellectually-inclined, a Sufi mystic, and ecumenical like his paternal great-grandfather, Akbar. But, in their minds, Dara was either too effete or naïve to have made a successful emperor. Here, some also rely on portrayals of the prince by European travellers like Niccolao Manucci and Francois Bernier, men who cashed in on their fleeting acquaintances with Dara and left us with impressions of a generous, if vain and petulant prince, who meets a tragic end.
Four centuries later, it is hard to gauge the character traits of such historical figures from the primary sources of the era. These sources are varied—they range from the ornate chronicles of Shah Jahan’s court to Dara’s own rather self-aggrandising writings, to post-facto histories and memoirs produced during Aurangzeb’s rule that often paint the unfortunate prince in a rather negative light. But the materials from before the war of succession do provide us with several important insights into how Dara fashioned himself as a future sovereign.
So what happens when we read Dara Shukoh’s life while suspending our foreknowledge of how it would end? Foremost, we would see that his lifelong spiritual quest was actually an intensely political one. Dara came to understand himself as a future emperor fairly early on. He was born the eldest son of a father who himself had to fight to accede to the throne. By the time Dara reached his teens, his father went from being a disgraced rebel prince to becoming Hindustan’s ruler. Shah Jahan nurtured Dara at the court, and there is good evidence to indicate that the two, along with Dara’s older sister, Jahanara, lived their lives together, governing the empire while, in their own ways, also seeking spiritual advancement.
Kingship in Dara Shukoh’s India wasn’t only about wielding brute force. Nor was there a single, static mould into which future emperors were poured. Sovereignty was always a work in progress, as an ever-shifting repertoire of ideas and symbols. For Dara Shukoh, these notions also included important exemplars that his forbears had also invoked and modelled themselves on. Among them—both non-Muslim—were Alexander the Great and the legendary Rama of the Ramayana.
Mughal royals didn’t just admire Alexander for his conquests. In Persian literature, the Greek ruler had come to acquire a special, mythic status. This was a court steeped in the poetry of Nizami of Ganja and Amir Khusrau of Delhi. Both sing of Alexander, as he conquered the world, liberating oppressed peoples. Both knew the Persian tradition that cast Alexander as the half-brother of the Iranian king, Dara (Darius), after whom Dara Shukoh (‘Majestic as Darius’) was named. Dara’s defeat at Alexander’s hands was thus especially poignant. But above all, the Mughals knew how Nizami and Khusrau celebrated Alexander as a philosopher-king, who devoted himself to the pursuit of wisdom. Receiving counsel from numerous sages, Alexander eventually achieves the status of a prophet in these accounts.
Dara had several encounters with Sufis and Hindu ascetics throughout his life, on the pattern of the ruler Alexander. He had these meetings captured in paintings as well as in his own writings. When, in these literary and artistic works, Dara invoked Alexander, he was also following the model of his Timurid and Mughal forbears. They too regularly referenced Alexander in their self-representations. In the court of Dara’s great-grandfather Akbar, paintings of Alexander were made to resemble the Mughal emperor. There is also a famous painting of Abkar by the artist Narsingh, which shows the emperor holding an interreligious dialogue in his Ibadatkhana. Here, Akbar also evokes the image of Alexander sitting in council with a group of sages. Akbar’s son Jahangir cites Nizami’s Alexander epic on kingship in his memoirs. Jahangir’s meetings with the Hindu renunciant Chidrup, captured in visual form at his court, also recall earlier paintings of Alexander’s visits to hermits. Spiritual knowledge of the mysteries of existence served as an ideological basis for imperial power, which advanced the emperor as a font of divine wisdom and authority.
Dara Shukoh might have thought of himself as a sovereign in the making, but when in 1657 his father fell severely ill, he still had to fight to secure the throne. Despite Dara’ best efforts, he could not forestall the civil war that his brothers instigated
Share this on
The divine king Rama also featured prominently in the Mughal court. Akbar commissioned a magnificent Persian translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, and there were other versions made for his family and nobles. By associating with Rama, considered by many to be the ideal king of all time, Akbar tapped into a powerful vocabulary of kingship in India. Afterwards, for at least three centuries, countless Indo-Persian authors and poets crafted renditions of the Rama story.
Dara Shukoh was very familiar with the Ramayana, versions of which he must have encountered in the imperial library. When in 1653 he met the Hindu ascetic Baba Lal, he asked him numerous questions about the sacred epic: Why, after the battle in Lanka, did only Rama’s fallen soldiers come to life and not Ravana’s? Why didn’t Ravana try to deceive Sita by taking Rama’s form? Why couldn’t Sita, who was pure dharma, just incinerate Ravana with her effulgence? The prince’s questions reflect his deep and wide-ranging curiosity about the Ramayana and the ethical and theological questions that its story provokes.
But there was also another portrayal of Rama well-known to the Mughal court. This was the Rama of the Yogavasishtha, a work also ascribed to Valmiki that was later abridged multiple times. In the various versions of the Yogavasishtha, Rama is a prince who experiences vairagya, or a feeling of indifference to the world. Gradually, through dialogues with his guru Vasishtha, Rama ascends to higher levels of understanding. He eventually achieves jivanmukti, or liberation in this life, without needing to renounce his princely duties. The idea that one could be both spiritually liberated and a divine ruler was of course very attractive to Indian kings and emperors, including the Mughals. Both Akbar and Jahangir commissioned translations of the Yogavasishtha at their courts. The version produced for Akbar was sumptuously illustrated, and was a prized item in Shah Jahan’s library.
In the mid-1650s, Dara became curious about the Yogavasishtha. He had already composed a number of works on Sufism, and was working on a comparison of Hindu and Islamic concepts that he felt were equivalent to each other. Of late, he had been growing more and more interested in Hindu thought, exploring texts such as the Bhagavata Purana, and possibly the Bhagavad Gita. It is probably not a coincidence that this period coincides with Dara Shukoh’s overtures to Rajput rulers, as the prince, cognizant of his father’s advancing age, worked to consolidate his network of support.
The Yogavasishtha ’s themes of living liberation, Vedantic non-dualism and kingship, appealed to the prince. But he was not content to rely on existing renditions of the work into Persian. He reports an auspicious dream in which Vasishtha and Rama entrusted him with the task of preparing a fresh translation: ‘Basisht said. O Ramchandra! This is a disciple who is absolutely sincere, please embrace him. With the utmost affection, Ram took me into his arms. Thereafter, Basisht gave Ramchandra sweets to feed me with. I ate the sweets. After seeing this vision, the desire to make a new translation grew stronger.’ Here, Dara portrays himself as a true disciple of Vasishtha, just like Rama. Dara forges a special bond with them through being fed sweets and by carrying out the translation.
Dara Shukoh might have thought of himself as a sovereign in the making, but when in 1657 his father fell severely ill, he still had to fight to secure the throne. Despite Dara’s best efforts, he could not forestall the civil war that his brothers instigated. He faced a two-pronged attack—from Shuja in the northeast and the combined forces of Aurangzeb and Murad in the south. The imperial armies were divided, fighting on two fronts. Dara suffered a crushing defeat at Samugarh, near Agra. The Iranian poet Bihishti, who was in Murad’s entourage, sang of how the ancient battle between Dara and Alexander had now been restaged: ‘Sikandar, who seized the world from Dara / Seized it with the grace of God the Most High.’ (Sikandar, kih giti zih Dara girift/ba taufiq-i izad taala girift). It was now Aurangzeb’s turn to become a second Alexander.
After Aurangzeb Alamgir’s death in 1707, several Mughal emperors would fall in quick succession. Rulers were no longer powerful sovereigns who ensured the world’s stability; they became reminders of the world’s transience. The 18th-century author and poet Mir Sher Ali ‘Afsos’ writes: ‘Those who wore crowns of gold upon their heads/Their skulls now lie in the dust’ (saron par jo rakhte the taj-i zari/padi khak men unke hai khopadi).
And yet, the Mughal empire is now long gone but its rulers still have a prominent place in our collective imagination. We owe this in some part to the ways in which colonial writers sliced the past into neat divisions, each dominated by a ruler whose personality defined his age. We continue to wrestle with the question of Dara versus Aurangzeb. Our obsession with kings doesn’t necessarily tell us much about these past royals, but it does say a great deal about who we are today.
The subcontinent’s most notable rulers, as the historian Taymiya Zaman points out, still haunt us after their deaths. Take, for instance, Ashoka, Akbar, Shivaji, Aurangzeb, and of course, Dara, the would-be emperor. We know them so intimately, or rather, we believe we do. But our familiarity with these rulers often precludes the critical study of their histories outside certain academic circles. We already feel we know their deeds, their virtues and vices. These spectral kings and princes inhabit our public life as if in flesh and blood. They have become metonyms for ideological positions of the present day.
Our desire for kingship spills over to our political arena. We anoint our politicians as rulers. Prime ministers and chief ministers—some of them—embrace the pomp and spectacle of royalty. They don finery, they unilaterally decide to tear down the old and build grand structures and even parts of cities anew, they erect mammoth statues. From time to time, they adopt the sanctified demeanour of the yogin, devi or sage-king rajarshi. These have all been longstanding features of monarchical sovereignty. The current political culture shows every sign that kings and kingship will continue to inflect our present instead of remaining in the past.