Beyond 'Hindu' and 'Muslim': Dara Shikoh's Quest for Spiritual Unity
Dara Shikoh, eldest son of the Mughal
Emperor of India, Shah Jahan, and heir apparent to his throne, was born near
Ajmer in 1615 C.E.. It is said that before Dara's birth, Shah Jahan had paid a
visit to the tomb of the great Chishti Sufi mystic, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti at
Ajmer and there had prayed for a son to be born to him, since all his earlier
children had been daughters. Thus, when Dara was born great festivities were
held in Delhi, the imperial capital, for the Emperor now had an heir to succeed
him to the throne.
Like any other Mughal prince, Dara's early education
was entrusted to maulvis attached to the royal court, who taught him the Qur'an,
Persian poetry and history. His chief instructor was one Mullah Abdul Latif
Saharanpuri, who developed in the young Dara an unquenchable thirst for
knowledge and the speculative sciences, including Sufism. In his youth, Dara
came into contact with numerous Muslim and Hindu mystics, some of whom exercised
a profound influence on him. The most noted among these was Hazrat Miyan Mir
(d.1635 C.E.), a Qadri Sufi of Lahore whose disciple he later became. Hazrat
Miyan Mir is best remembered for having laid the foundation- stone of the Golden
Temple of the Sikhs at Amritsar. After Dara was initiated into the Qadri Sufi
order, which he describes in his Risala-i-Haq Numa as 'the best path of reaching
Divinity', he came into contact with several other accomplished mystics of his
day, Muslim as well as Hindu, including Shah Muhibullah, Shah Dilruba, Shah
Muhammad Lisanullah Rostaki, Baba Lal Das Bairagi and Jagannath Mishra. Dara's
close and friendly interaction with them led him to seek to establish bridges of
understanding between Sufism and Hindu mysticism.
In pursuit of this
aim, Dara now set about seeking to learn more about the religious systems of the
Hindus. He studied Sanskrit, and, with the help of the Pandits of Benaras, made
a Persian translation of the Upanishads, which was later followed by his Persian
renderings of the Gita and the Yoga Vasishta. Throughout this endeavour, his
fundamental concern was the quest for the discovery of the Unity of God
(tauhid), seeking to draw out the commonalities in the scriptures of the Hindus
and the Muslims.
Dara expresses this concern in his Persian translation
of the Upanishads, the Sirr ul-Akbar ('The Great Secret') thus:
whereas I was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostic doctrines of every
sect and to hear their lofty expressions of monotheism and had cast my eyes upon
many theological books and had been a follower thereof for many years, my
passion for beholding the Unity [of God], which is a boundless ocean, increased
every moment. [.] Thereafter, I began to ponder as to why the discussion of
monotheism is so conspicuous in India and why the Indian [Hindu] mystics and
theologians of ancient India do not disavow the Unity of God, nor do they find
any fault with the Unitarians.
Dara's works are numerous, all in the
Persian language, only some of which are readily available today. His writings
fall into two broad categories. The first consists of books on Sufism and Muslim
saints, the most prominent of these being the Safinat ul- Auliya, the Sakinat
ul-Auliya, the Risala-i Haq Numa, the Tariqat ul-Haqiqat, the Hasanat ul-'Arifin
and the Iksir-i 'Azam. The second consists of writings such as the Majma
ul-Bahrain, the Mukalama-i Baba Lal Das wa Dara Shikoh, the Sirr-i Akbar and his
Persian translations of the Yoga Vashishta and the Gita.
The Safinat ul-Auliya, a biography of several leading Sufi
saints, was Dara's first work, composed in 1640 C.E., when he was just 25 years
of age. Here he stresses the importance of the Sufi pirs or guides, because, he
believes, one can attain knowledge of the mystical path only through the
assistance of a spiritual master. In Dara's words, 'God never leaves his people
without saints to guide them. [.] Therefore, next to the prophets, there are no
other persons than the saints nearer in the presence of God, the Almighty'. The
true saint is a 'perfect guide' (pir-i kamil), for, 'No one is more
compassionate and magnanimous, erudite and practical, humble and polite, heroic
and charitable than the members of this hierarchy of the saints'.
Safinat ul-Auliya is Dara's second biography of various Sufi saints. Unlike the
Sakinat ul-Auliya, which deals with Sufis of various orders, this book discusses
only the Qadri Sufis of India. Dara himself was a Qadri, and as he puts it,
'Nothing attracts me more than this Qadri order, which has fulfilled my
spiritual aspirations'. The Qadri order, one of the most popular and widespread
of all the Sufi silsilahs, traces its origins to the Prophet through the twelfth
century Sufi and Islamic scholar of great renown, Shaikh Abdul Qadir Jilani of
Baghdad. The Sakinat ul-Auliya was completed in 1642 C.E., when Dara was 28
years old, three years after his first meeting with the Qadri Sufi Miyan Mir. In
the same year, Dara came into contact with another leading Qadri saint, Mulla
Shah Badakshani (d. 1642 C.E.), who, like Miyan Mir, exercised a particularly
powerful influence on Dara, which is readily apparent in his description of the
practices of the Qadris in the Sakinat ul-Auliya.
Dara's next book on
Islamic Sufism is the Hasanat ul-'Arifin or 'The Aphorisms of the Gnostics'. It
consists of the sayings of 107 Sufis of various spiritual orders. Explaining the objective behind writing the book, Dara says in his
I was enamoured of studying books on the ways of the men of
the Path and had in my mind nothing save the understanding of the Unity of God;
and before this, in a state of ecstasy and enthusiasm, I had uttered some words
pertaining to sublime knowledge, because of which certain bigoted and
narrow-minded people accused me of heresy and apostasy. It was then that I
realised the importance of compiling the aphorisms of great believers in the
Unity of God and the sayings of saints who have, hitherto, acquired knowledge of
Reality, so that these may serve as an argument against those who are really
In the Hasanat ul-'Arifin, Dara bitterly criticises those
self-styled 'ulama who, ignoring the inner dimension of the faith, focus simply
on external rituals. His critique is directed against mindless ritualism emptied
of inner spiritual content, and he challenges the claims of the 'ulama who would
readily trade their faith for worldly gain. Thus, he says:
May the world
be free from the noise of the Mulla
And none should pay any heed to their
As for those 'ulama who claim to be religious authorities but
have actually little or no understanding at all of the true spirit of religion,
Dara writes that, 'As a matter of fact, these are ignoramuses to themselves and
learned to the ignorant', and adds the following couplet:
and saint suffered afflictions and torments,
Due to the vicious and
ignominious conduct of the mulla.
Two short, yet important, works of Dara
on the various stages and practices associated with the Sufi path are the
Tariqat ul-Haqiqat and the Risala-i Haq Numa. The former consists of both
prose as well as poetry. It begins with a prologue containing the praises of God
and His Omnipotence and His All-Pervasiveness. Thus, Dara says, referring to the
You dwell in the Ka'aba and in Somnath [a famous Shaivite Hindu
And in the hearts of the enamoured lovers.
The text goes on to
discuss the thirty stages (manazil) on the Sufi path, the first of which is
detachment from the materialistic world and the last of which is realisation of
the Truth. Broadly the same theme is discussed in the Risala-i Haq Numa, where
the seeker (salik) is shown as starting from the Alam-i Nasut or 'The Physical
Plane', and, passing through various stages, finally reaching the Alam-i Lahut
or 'the Plane of Absolute Truth'. Some of the physical exercises employed by the
Sufis that are described in the Risala-i Haq Numa are shown by Dara to be
similar to those used by the Hindu Tantriks and Yogis. These include astral
healing and concentration on the centres of meditation in the heart and brain.
Further, he suggests that the four planes through which the Sufi seeker's
journey takes him-Nasut , Jabrut, Malakut and Lahut-correspond to the Hindu
concept of the Avasthanam or the four 'states' of Jagrat, Swapna, Shushpati and
One of the most intriguing works of Dara's is his collection of
poems, the Diwan, also known as the Iksir-i 'Azam. Some of the verses from the
Diwan, given below, suggest the train of Dara's mystical
On Monotheism [tauhid]
Look where you can, All is He,
face is ever face to face.
Whatever you behold except Him is the object
of your fancy,
Things other than He have an existence like a mirage.
existence of God is like a boundless ocean,
People are like forms and
waves in its water.
Though I do not consider myself separate from Him,
I do not consider myself God.
Whatever relation the drop bears with the
That I hold true in my belief, and nothing beyond.
We have not
seen an atom separate from the Sun,
Every drop of water is the sea in
With what name should one call the Truth?
Every name that exists
is one of God's names.
On Divine Love
O Thou, from
whose very name rains Love abundant!
And from your message rains
Whoever passes through Your street realises
That indeed from the
very door to the terrace of Your house rains l love!
On the Mystical
Turn to none except God,
The rosary and the sacred thread are
but only a means to an end.
All this piety is conceit and hypocrisy,
can it be worthy of our Beloved?.
Kingship is easy, acquaint yourself
Why should a drop become a pearl when it can transform itself
into an ocean?.
Hands soiled with gold
begin to stink,
How awful is the plight of the soul soiled with gold!
and night you hear of people dying,
You, too, have to die. How strange is
The more a traveller is unencumbered,
The less he
feels worried on his journey.
You, too, are a traveller in this
Take this as certain, if you are wakeful.
Drive egoism away from
For, like conceit and arrogance, it is also a burden.
So long as you
live in this world, be independent,
The Qadri has warned
Whoever recognised this, carried the day,
He who lost
himself, found Him.
And he who sought Him not within his own self,
away, carrying his quest along with him.
The Qadri found his Beloved within
his own self,
Being himself of good disposition, he won the favour of the
To whatever object you may turn your face, He is in view,
you blind, for why do you assign Him to yourself?
Dara On The Religious
Systems of the Hindus
Dara wrote extensively on the religious systems
of the Hindus, following in the tradition of several Muslim mystics and scholars
before him. Like several Sufis before and after him, saw the possibility of some
religious figures of the Hindus having been actually been prophets of God, and
certain Hindu scriptures as having been of divine origin. Thus, for instance, he
writes in the Sirr-i Akbar that a strong strain of monotheism may be discerned
in the Vedas and opines that the monotheistic philosophy of the Upanishads may
be 'in conformity with the Holy Qur'an and a commentary thereon'.
quest for an empathetic understanding of the Hindu religious systems, Dara spent
many years in the study of Sanskrit, and for this purpose employed a large
number of Pandits from Benaras. Several contemporary Sanskrit scholars praise
him for his liberal patronage of the language. Prominent among these was
Jagannath Mishra, who, it is said, was once weighed against silver coins at Shah
Jahan's command and the money given to him. He was the author of the Jagatsimha,
a work in praise of Dara, and of the Asif Vilasa, a treatise written in praise
of Asif Khan, brother of Nur Jahan, wife of Shah Jahan. Other Sanskrit scholars
who were patronised by Dara included Pandit Kavindracharya, who was granted a
royal pension of two thousand rupees, and Banwali Das, author of a historical
work on the kings of Delhi from Yudhishtra, a key figure of the epic
Mahabharata, to Shah Jahan, for which he was honored by Shah Jahan with the
title of Sarvavidyanidhana.
The most well-known of Dara's several works
on the religious sciences of the Hindus is his Majma ul-Bahrain ('The Mingling
of the Two Oceans'). Completed when Dara was forty two years old, this book is a
pioneering attempt to build on the similarities between Sufism and certain
strands of Hindu monotheistic thought, and it is these two that the 'two oceans'
in the book's name refer to. He describes this treatise as 'a collection of the
truth and wisdom of two Truth-knowing groups'. It is, in terms of content,
rather technical, focussing on Hindu terminology and their equivalents in
Islamic Sufism. The basic message that this book conveys is summed up in Dara's
own words thus: 'Mysticism is equality', and, he adds, 'If I know that an
infidel, immersed in sin, is, in a way, singing the note of monotheism, I go to
him, hear him and am grateful to him'.
The Majma-ul Bahrain is divided
into twenty-two sections, in each of which Dara seeks to draw out the
similarities between Hindu and Sufi concepts and teachings. Thus, for instance,
the Hindu notion of Mutki, he says, is identical with the Sufi concept of
Salvation, denoting the annihilation (fana) of the self in God. Or, for example,
the Sufi concept of 'ishq (Love) is said to be identical with the maya of the
Hindu monotheists. From Love, says Dara, was born the 'great soul', alternately
known as the soul of Muhammad to the Sufis, and Mahatman or Hiranyagarba to the
Dara's translation of certain Hindu scriptures into Persian
represents a landmark in the process of developing bridges of understanding
between people of different faiths in medieval India, in which the Sufis played
the leading role. One of Dara's earliest attempts at translation was his
rendering of the Gita into Persian. Keenly interested as he was in the
philosophy of Yoga, Dara also had the Yoga Vasishta, one of the earliest
Sanskrit texts on Yoga, translated into Persian. The translator of the text
opens his treatise with praises of God and the Prophet Muhammad
Gratitude, adoration and submission are offered to the One, the Sun
of whose glory shines in every atom of the cosmos and where grandeur is
manifested in the entire Universe, although He is hidden from all eyes and is
behind the veil; boundless benedictions in all sincerity and faith free from
error, omission or sanctimoniousness to that choicest product of His creation,
to that personification of all that is best, the Holy Prophet Muhammad, may
peace and Allah's blessings be upon him, and the same to Hazrat 'Ali, the object
of his love.
The translator then quotes Dara as saying:
reason for this noble command [to have the Yoga Vasishta translated] is that
although I had profited by pursuing a translation of the Yoga Vasishta ascribed
to Shaikh Sufi, yet once two saintly persons appeared in my dreams; one of whom
was tall, whose hair was gray, the other short and without any hair. The former
was Vasishta and the latter Ram Chandra, and as I had read the translation
already alluded to, I was naturally attracted to them and paid them my
respects. Vasisht was very kind to me and patted me on the back, and, addressing
Ram Chandra, told him that I was brother to him because both he and I were
seekers after truth. He asked Ram Chandra to embrace me, which he did in
exuberance of love. Thereupon, Vasishta gave some sweets to Ram Chandra, which I
also took and ate. After this vision, a desire to cause the translation of the
book intensified in me.
Dara established close and cordial relations with
mystics from various backgrounds. Among these were several jogis and sadhus,
about some of whom Dara also wrote. One such sadhu was Baba Lal, follower of the
renowned Sufi-Bhakti saint Kabir and founder of a small monotheistic order named
after him as the Baba Lalis. Many of the teachings of this sect can be traced to
a distinct Sufi influence. A summary of these teachings is to be found in Dara's
Makalama Baba Lal wa Dara Shikoh, which consists of seven long conversations
between the Baba and Dara held in Lahore in 1653 C.E.. These seven discourses
were composed originally in Hindawi, and were later translated into Persian by
Dara's chief secretary, Rai Chandar Bhan. As in the case of Dara's
translation of the Yoga Vasishta, this text focuses particularly on certain
similarities in the teachings of Hindu and Muslim mystics.
interest that Dara had in exploring monotheistic strands in Hindu philosophy led
him, finally, to translate fifty-two Upanishads into Persian. The text that he
prepared, the Sirr ul-Akbar ('The Great Secret') was completed in 1067 A.H. /
1657 C.E.. Here, he opines that the 'great secret' of the Upanishads is the
monotheistic message, which is identical to that on which the Qur'an is based.
The text begins with praises to Allah and the Prophet Muhammad
Praised be the Being, that among whose eternal secrets is the dot
in the 'b' of the Bismillah [the first word in the Qur'an] in all the Heavenly
Books, and glorified be the Mother of Books. In the Holy Qur'an is the token of
His glorious name; and the angels and the heavenly books and the prophets and
the saints are all comprehended in this name. And the blessings of the Almighty
Allah be upon the best of His creatures, the Holy Prophet Muhammad and upon all
his family and upon all his Companions!.
Dara then proceeds to detail the
purpose behind translating the Upanishads. He writes that in the year 1050 A.H.
he visited Kashmir, and there he met Hazrat Mullah Shah, whom he describes as
'the flower of the Gnostics, the tutor of the tutors, the sage of the sages, the
guide of the guides, the Unitarians accomplished in the Truth'.
Thereafter, he says, he was filled with a longing to 'behold the Gnostics of
every sect and to hear the lofty expressions of monotheism'. Hence, he says, he
began his search for monotheism in other scriptures as well, including the Torah
of the Jews (Taurat), the Gospels of Jesus (Injil) the Psalms of David (Zabur),
and, in addition, the books of the ancient Hindus. He notes with approval the
fact that certain Hindu 'theologians and mystics' ('ulama-i zahiri wa batini)
actually believe in One God, but laments that 'the ignoramuses of the present
age', who claim to be authorities in matters of religion, have completely
distorted this fundamental truth. His search for traces of monotheism in the
religious systems of the Hindus stems, he says, from his faith in the Qur'an,
which states that God has, from time to time, sent prophets to all peoples to
preach the worship of the One. Thus, he goes on to add:
And it can also
be ascertained from the Holy Qur'an that there is no nation without a prophet
and without a revealed scripture, for it has been said: 'Nor do We chastise
until We raise an apostle' [Qur'an: XVII, 15]. And in another verse: 'And there
is not a people but a warner has gone among them' [Qur'an: XXXV, 24]. And at
another place: 'Certainly we sent our apostles with clear arguments, and sent
down with them the Book and the Measure' [Qur'an: LVII, 25].
says Dara, he travelled to Benaras in 1067 A.H., where he assembled several
leading Sanskrit Pandits to translate the Upanishads, in an effort to draw out
from the scriptures of the Hindus the hidden teachings on monotheism which are,
he says, 'in conformity with the Holy Qur'an'. Having explored the teachings of
the Upanishads, he writes that they are 'a treasure of monotheism', although, he
notes, 'very few are conversant with this, even among the Hindus'. Hence, he
says, there is an urgent need to bring to light this 'Great Secret' so that the
Hindus can learn the truth about monotheism as contained in their own scriptures
and, in addition, Muslims, too, can be made aware of the spiritual treasures
that the Upanishads contain. He goes so far as to accord the Upanishads,
in their original forms, the status of divinely revealed scriptures, claiming
that the Qur'anic verse which speaks about a 'protected book', which 'none shall
touch but the purified ones' [Qur'an: LVI, 77-80] literally applies to them,
because some of the verses of the Qur'an are to be found in their Sanskrit form
The Emperor Shah Jahan's serious
illness in l657 C.E. was the signal of a war of succession among his sons.
Aurangzeb grabbed the throne in 1658, and had his father imprisoned in the fort
at Agra, where he died eight years later. He then ordered the execution of Dara,
who, as Shah Jahan's eldest son, was considered to be the rightful heir to the
throne. Although the conflict between the two may actually have been, at root,
political, it was sought to be given a religious garb. Dara was accused by
Aurangzeb and some 'ulama attached to the royal court of infidelity and
heresy. Accordingly, he was executed under a royal decree issued by
Aurangzeb in 1659 C.E.. He lies buried, a forgotten hero, in a nondescript grave
in the tomb complex of the Emperor Humayun in Delhi.