Abul Fazl presenting the Akbarnama to Akbar (Photo: Alamy)
‘Of God, people have said that He had 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!’
— Akbar in a letter to Abdullah of Turan, Akbarnama
‘In our free Hall, where each philosophy And mood of faith may hold its own, they blurt Their furious formalisms, I but hear The clash of tides that meet in narrow seas, – Not the Great Voice not the true Deep.’
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, ‘Akbar’s Dream’
AKBAR DID NOT want to die. He practised ascetic austerities—eating little, and of a predominantly ‘Sufiyana’ diet that excluded meat, sleeping little, and hailing celibacy as a virtue: ‘Had I been wise earlier, I would have taken no woman from my own kingdom into my seraglio, for my subjects are to me in the place of children.’ In the eventuality that he must die, even if he lived 100, 200 or 1000 years, Akbar had shaved a spot on his head, believing that this provided for his soul to escape through his skull, and return to live another great emperor’s life.
Far from living several times the span of a normal life, as he had been promised, Akbar died at the unexceptional age of sixty-three; and, as far as we know, he has yet to return to rule the world. But the emperor who sought immortality had one last trick up his sleeve. He was a bibliophile, after all, and he knew that books last longer than any human life, any dynasty, any age.
In the late 1580s, Akbar commissioned histories. He asked his aunt, Gulbadan, to write her memoirs, he asked his father’s water-bearer, Jouher, and one of his old soldiers, Bayazid Biyat. And, of course, he asked Abul Fazl—who collected many of these other writings (Bayazid, in fact, dictated his history to one of Abul Fazl’s clerks), interviewed older relatives, attendants and the emperor himself, trawled through the annals of Central Asia, Persia and Hindustan, and produced one of the most monumental works of literature that exists in the world—not only an account of Akbar’s life, but a political, theological, even mythological basis for the emperor’s existence and rule.
The research involved was tremendous. It was only in November of 1595, many years after Akbar had commissioned the work, that Abul Fazl sat down to write. ‘A great joy seized me,’ he says of those days. ‘My heart renewed its vigour, and my useless pen drew a wondrous sketch.’ Writers will know how rare this feeling is, and how wonderful, and may not be surprised that by April of the following year, in barely six months, Abul Fazl, thus absorbed, had written the first thirty years of Akbar’s life.
Abul Fazl was invited to present his work in court. ‘Assemblies were convened for praise and censure of my labour, and cries of “bravo” and “boo” rang out.’ His enemies and competitors ‘sat gnashing their teeth in envy’.
One of them may well have been Badauni who, not content with merely scowling at Abul Fazl’s nonsense, decided to write his own version of events. In the opening pages of his secret history, Badauni states he will write an account of ‘these 40 years from the accession of Akbar’, implying that he began to write in 1596, the very year that Abul Fazl presented his manuscript.
No sooner, that is, had one man written a story of Akbar than another began to compose a counter to it.
COLONIAL AND NATIONALIST historians might have written with modern detachment of Akbar’s heterodoxy, but picked other quarrels with the emperor, condemning his appetite for power, or accusing him of duplicity. Thus, by 1922, JS Hoyland and SN Banerjee, writing their introduction to Father Monserrate’s memoirs and comparing Akbar unfavourably with the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, declared that ‘modern researches’ had undone the idea of Akbar as an ideal ‘philosopher-king’: ‘His character with its mixture of ambition and cunning has now been laid bare.’
Among nationalist historians, Akbar and Ashoka may have been two ‘greats’ who united the diversity of newly independent India, but not all historians of this school were able to fully disguise an instinctive suspicion of the Muslim ruler. RC Majumdar damns him by exception—the only good man in a dynasty of kings ‘notorious for their religious bigotry’. AL Srivastava’s censure is more a slip of the pen. In a biography that credits Akbar with establishing ‘national Indian’ schools of every kind, from music to architecture, Srivastava also describes the emperor, in his youth, as a ‘good, though tolerant, Muslim’—as if the two qualities contradict each other quite naturally.
Abul Fazl interviewed relatives, attendants and the emperor himself, trawled through the annals of Central Asia, Persia and Hindustan, and produced one of the most monumental works of literature that exists in the world—not only an account of Akbar’s life, but a political, theological, even mythological basis for the emperor’s existence and rule
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And now, a century later, another troop of adversaries rallies against Akbar, politicians, columnists and makers of memes, leaders and foot soldiers of Hindutva straining to strip Akbar of his usual suffix, ‘the great’, and hand it to a more deserving—or, let us say, more Hindu—king, like Hemu or Rana Pratap.
AKBAR WAS NOT a perfect man, the insan-i-kamil of Abul Fazl’s resplendent prose. His appetite for conquest was, indeed, insatiable, though it is strange to expect anything less from a sixteenth-century monarch. He was not above a covert assassination or two; nor above proclaiming his Islamic credentials to Abdullah of Turan while encouraging Muslim clerics in his own court to drink wine. For all his reforms of revenue, administration and welfare that so distressed his warlords, for all his controversial experiments with faith, Akbar was not as radical on questions of caste. The emperor is said to have coined the term ‘halalkhor’ (literally, one who eats what is lawful, more broadly, ‘one who earns an honest living’) for sweepers—that is, Dalits, ‘untouchables’. The name anticipates another, ‘harijan’ (born of God), which the third ‘great’ of Indian history, Mahatma Gandhi, popularized for a while. Both terms carry an air of ineffectual benevolence: neither change in terminology effected a change in the lives of those whom it renamed.
Akbar was not a perfect man, but he was as great as any man can be, in that he strove for perfection not through power, but through its just exercise. This was what lay at the crux of Akbar’s enquiries into faith. ‘The King was always pondering in his mind which nation has retained the true religion of God; and to this question he constantly gave the most earnest thought,’ writes Father Monserrate. The question—How I wish for the coming of some pious man, who will resolve the distractions of my heart!—possessed the emperor, in his solitary meditations, in the gladiatorial combats of the Ibadat Khana, in the perplexing fits that sometimes overtook him.
A less imaginative man might well have remained caught in this imperative, that only one faith can make one empire, but Akbar, striding into storms of ideas and opinions as audaciously as he rode into the monsoon-heavy waters of the Ganga, was not that man. ‘By God,’ he once exclaimed when Father Monserrate himself thought he might have gone too far in his criticism of Islam, ‘I am not the man to have my feelings outraged by these things.’ He was, instead, the man to have his intelligence aroused. As men of many faiths argued around him, Akbar stopped looking for the one true belief that would bring peace to all men. Instead, he turned the whole proposition on its head and decided to make that very peace for all, the sulh-i kul, the principle tenet of his rule.
Akbar may not have found one true God, but he had found his way.
WHEN AKBAR TOOK the throne in 1556, writes Stephen Dale, he ‘reigned over, but did not rule, a modest, insecure north Indian state’. It was hardly a few cities—Lahore, Sirhind, Delhi and Agra, and a narrow corridor of land between them. A half-century later, when Akbar died, ‘his conquests and institutional innovations [had] bequeathed to his successors a stable, populous empire, whose wealth dwarfed that of his Safavid and Ottoman contemporaries’.
The Mughal realm stretched far in space, from Kabul and Kashmir to Burhanpur, from Surat and Sindh to Orissa—and it was the rare foreign court where the wealth and power of the ‘Great Mogor’ was unknown—but it stretched even farther in time. Two and a half centuries after Akbar’s death, in 1857, it was the truncated Mughal court in Delhi that remained the greatest symbolic threat to the British Raj; and today, it is the Mughals, still, who arouse most envy and spleen amongst votaries of the Hindu Rashtra.
What gave the empire such longevity, such seemingly eternal relevance? Akbar, despite his best efforts, is long gone, along with his dynasty; their appearance in textbooks is being curtailed, the naming of roads after them is contested. But the Akbarnama remains.
As those cries of ‘bravo’ and ‘boo’ rang out, a sympathetic critic came to Abul Fazl and asked him what the point was of writing such a book. ‘Why do you take such pains, and why do you write in such a style? Will one out of thousands come into existence who will read this glorious volume aright, and be instructed by the new magic of its method? From whom do you expect the effectual recognition of the Truth?’ His friend advised the historian to write for a wider market.
As is often the case with writers, Abul Fazl was pleased by the praise but unimpressed by the advice. He was writing for a special audience, for the ‘Unique One of Time’. ‘What have I to do with a crowd?’
A great deal, as it happens.
It is Abul Fazl whom Harbans Mukhia credits with ‘the construction of “harmony” as the encompassing ideological frame that would remain the keystone of the Mughal state’s legitimacy and its posthumous legacy’. Long after the last Mughal died forlorn in Rangoon, the Akbar and the Mughal empire of Abul Fazl’s book have lived on in the Indian imagination, surviving assaults from every front—not because Abul Fazl valorises the perfection of one man, but rather because he locates that perfection in the fragile hope of peace for all, a phrase that echoes in the guiding tenet of the Indian dream, once familiar to every Indian schoolchild: unity in diversity.
As men of many faiths argued around him, Akbar stopped looking for the one true belief that would bring peace to all men. Instead, he turned the whole proposition on its head and decided to make that very peace for all, the sulh-i kul, the principle tenet of his rule
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IN JAUNPUR, YOUNG Banarasidas, budding poet, fell unconscious when he heard that Akbar had died. He was sitting on a staircase when ‘The news struck him like a blow upon the heart’. Banarasi fainted and fell; ‘He cracked his head and began bleeding profusely. / The word ‘God’ slipped from his mouth.’
His parents were frantic, Banarasi’s mother ran to put burnt cloth to his wound. Outside, meanwhile, the whole city was experiencing Banarasi’s shock and his parents’ panic. ‘The people, bereft of their emperor, felt orphaned and helpless,’ the jeweller’s son wrote later. ‘The townsfolk were afraid, / Their hearts troubled, their faces pale with fear.’
Riots broke out and the town shut down. Worried about robberies and insurrections, people locked up their houses and shops, buried their fine clothes and jewels, accounting books and cash. Men put on rough blankets, ‘The women too began to dress plainly.’
As it happens, there was no need to fear. ‘No thieves or robbers were to be seen anywhere, / People were needlessly afraid.’ Peace returned; ‘A letter came from Agra saying that all was well’—announcing Salim’s accession.
So often while Akbar lived—when he had his epileptic epiphany in Punjab, when he got off his horse during a polo match—rumours of his death or ill health had led to immediate revolts in the more restless pockets of his empire. And yet, so strong was the scaffolding on which Akbar had built his realm that when the emperor did die, his own mighty death did not shake it.
One man, however, was shaken to the core. Banarasi recovered from his wound. Like the rest of Jaunpur, he breathed in relief as the letter announcing Salim’s peaceful succession ‘was read from house to house’. But later on, sitting alone on his terrace, Banarasi had other thoughts.
The seventeen-year-old Jain of eclectic faith had only recently been disappointed by his purchase of a mantra meant to bring gold to his door. Soon after, he had taken to worshipping Shiva. But now he asked himself why: ‘When I swooned and fell, / Shiva did not help me then.’ Banarasi stopped his daily puja to the Lord.
Abul Fazl might have liked the story, and Akbar too: that his death bred doubt in his young subject.
Perhaps, they might have said, Akbar’s soul did escape into the world through that patch on his skull. Perhaps his famously, notoriously, adventurous spirit found its way to Jaunpur, flew up to the pensive poet on his roof and whispered in his ear: Question. Doubt. Scandalize.
(This is an edited excerpt from Akbar of Hindustan by Parvati Sharma | Juggernaut | 456 pages | ₹ 699)