Sarmad the Armenian and Dara Shikoh

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn 6th May, 2006

D ARA Shikoh, the eldest son of Shah Jehan, has a very special place in the hearts of the people of Lahore. He was known as Shah Dara, the rightful heir to the Mughal throne. Shahdara, the settlement on the banks of the Ravi, is named after him. Above all, he was a man of immense learning and scholarship, and his inclination towards Sufism and negation of rigid fundamentalism endears him, still, to the people of the walled city.

At the age of 19, Dara Shikoh recovered from a serious illness after visiting Hazrat Mian Mir, the Sufi sage of Lahore. His faith in the power of saints and his interest in religion were firmly established. In 1640 he became a disciple of Mullah Shah, one of Mian Mir’s successors. It was in Lahore where he wrote a book containing biographies of Sufi saints. A biography of Mian Mir and his principal disciples followed two years later. He also wrote brief Sufi pamphlets, one of which was a reply to those who criticised him for his statements.

In Majma-ul-Bahrain, completed in 1655, Dara Shikoh traced parallells between Islamic Sufism and Hindu Vedantism. “There were not many differences, except verbal, in the ways we... comprehended the truth.”This book, written in Lahore, was published 150 years later in French in two volumes in 1801 and 1802, and it greatly influenced European thinkers like Schopenhauer, as well as many others.

Among the most noteworthy distinguished Sufi poet that Dara Shikoh was attracted to was Sarmad, a truly remarkable man who was beheaded by Aurangzeb. Indeed, Dara Shikoh seems to have been in the middle of the entire literary, spiritual, and intellectual movement that was to propel Lahore as a centre of a liberal tradition not known in the subcontinent before. His spirit still pervades the way we think, a sort of detached tolerance to every point of view. The execution of Dara by his brother Aurangzeb led to this tradition being badly dented.

Dara Shikoh had become a dis ciple of Sarmad, the great Persian-language poet, sage and Sufi. His stature as a poet is often mentioned along with Ferdosi, Nizami, Saadi, Hafez, Jami and Omar Khayyam. Yet we know so little of this great Armenian who became a Sufi saint, and walked stark naked initially in the streets of Lahore, and then moved to Delhi, where he taunted the emperor Aurangzeb for his “murderous acts in the name of religion.” Who was Sarmad? We know that he dwelled in an open space just next to where today stands the Badshahi Mosque. Many years later the great Ustad Daman was to also live there, and often, in a lighter mood, would claim that he slept where Sarmad used to sleep. According to the eminent Persian scholar and historian Henry George Keene: “Sarmad was the poetical name of an Armenian merchant who came to India in the reign of the Emperor Shah Jehan. In one of his journeys towards Thatta, he fell so passionately in love with a Hindu girl that he became ‘distracted and would go about the stress naked’. “In the beginning of the reign of Aurangzeb, he was put to death outside the Jamia Masjid Delhi on account of his disobeying the orders of that emperor, who had commanded him not to go about naked. This event took place in the year 1661. Some say that the real cause of his execution was a verse he composed, the translation of which is: ‘The mullahs say that Muhammad (peace be upon him) entered the heavens, but Sarmad says that the heavens entered Muhammad’. His tomb is close to the Jamia Masjid. It was him who said: ‘In the shadow of great mosques does evil propser.’” People flocked round Sarmad and many found him to be a man of great sanctity and supernatural powers. It was Dara Shikoh who brought the miraculous powers of Sarmad to the notice of his father, Emperor Shah Jehan. When Aurangzeb had usurped the throne, he taunted Sarmad about the succession of his favourite disciple, Dara Shikoh, to the throne, which he had promised him. Sarmad calmly replied: “God has given him eternal sovereignty and my promise is not falsified.” The supreme moment had at last arrived for Aurangzeb to wreak his vengeance on the harmless naked saint and scholar, and he immediately ordered his execution. It is said that when the condemned man was being led away from the tribunal to the place of execution, he uttered, extempore, a long poem of immense beauty, the last lines of which are:

There was an uproar and we opened our eyes from eternal sleep Saw that the night of wickedness endured, so we slept again Aqil Khan Razi, the court chronicler of Aurangzeb, writes that when the executioner was about to inflict the fatal blow, Sarmad uttered:

The nakedness of the body was the dust of the road to the friend That too was severed, with the sword, from our head.

According to another popular version Sarmad uttered: My head was severed from the body by that flirt, who was my companion The story was shortened, otherwise the headache would have been too severe The following letter which Prince Dara Shikoh had addressed to Sarmad shows the high regard the royal pupil had for his saintly master:

My Pir and Preceptor, Everyday I resolve to pay my respects to you. It remains unaccomplished. If I be I, wherefore is my intention of no account? If I be not, what is my fault? Though the murder of Imam Hussein was the will of God: Who is (then) Yazid between (them). If it is not the Divine Will, then what is the meaning of “God does whatever He wills and commands whatever He intends”? The most excellent Prophet used to go to fight the unbelievers, defeat was inflicted on the army of Islam. The exoteric scholars say it was an education in resignation. For the Perfect what education was necessary?

Sarmad’s reply to the above epistle consisted of two lines, in verse, which when translated says:

My dear Prince, What we have read, we have forgotten Save the discourse of the friend which we reiterate.

There are a lot of stories of Sarmad about his life in Lahore, his devotion to Mian Mir and how he predicted events. The execution of Dara Shikoh led him to Delhi and it was there that he had an immense following. In Lahore there is a saying that the Mughal empire faded away because of the curse of Sarmad who lamented the execution of Lahore’s favourite son Dara Shikoh.

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