The endearing legacy of the slain prince

Sudhirendar Sharma
Dara was a great unifier of religions and essayed his brand of religious liberalism at a time when orthodox Sunni faith was on its ascendancy. The legacy and the myths surrounding him have far outlived Dara Shukoh, inspiring historians of varied hues to reconstruct the unusual persona of a prince who could have been an Emperor. A visionary thinker, a talented poet, a prolific writer, a theologian, a calligraphist, and a warm-hearted family man, the eldest son and chosen successor of 5th Mughal Emperor Shahjahan held a bundle of virtues like none other but could not breach the war of succession that had come to symbolize the ruling dynasty. Yet, the tragedy of a multifaceted visionary and the counterfactual Dara Shukoh poses continues to our own times.

Sudhirendar Sharma

Clearly ahead of times in expressing love, compassion and tolerance towards other faiths, Dara was cast in the mold of his great grandfather Akbar to give the Mughal lineage a distinct identity in history. That was not to be as his die-hard pursuit for pantheistic philosophy, which made his mind glued to addressing philosophical questions, had robbed him of the slightest interest in military strategy. Sitting beside his father in the court, the crown prince would often be oblivious of the proceedings around him. What was overlooked by the doting father and the Emperor didn’t miss the attention of the courtiers who began to harbour misgivings about Dara’s credentials as the future of the empire. For the prince, however, the empire was confined to his inner world.
Why the Emperor didn’t infuse the indomitable Timurid spirit in the crown prince? Why the quest to win the war of succession was not transposed on Dara? Was the eldest of the claimants to the throne a reluctant sovereign? These questions continue to resurface as historians reconstruct the legacy of the ‘good’ Mughal whose ascendance to the throne would have altered the course of Indian history. Avik Chandra’s meticulously researched and engrossing biography of the slain prince presents him as a syncretic scholar of extraordinary genius whose growing enmity with the clergy had put paid through his life in a purely Islamic state.
History remains inconclusive on why a prince who had repeatedly demonstrated his lack of interest in the tedium of administration was chosen successor to the throne? This may have led him, the de-facto administrator of the empire under imperial protection, to see little reason to renounce the comforts of his regal life while in intellectual pursuit of the ultimate truth. Such unrequited confidence, combined with his derision of the clerics, proved costly in the long run for the crown prince as a growing number of detractors and adversaries insidiously worked against him. It may not be erroneous to conclude that Shahjahan’s excessive love made Dara an innocent victim of the political circumstances.
Like his forefathers Akbar and Jahangir, Dara was a great unifier of religions and essayed his brand of religious liberalism at a time when orthodox Sunni faith was on its ascendency. In discussions with the learned men of all faiths, he had concluded that apart from the manner of exposition of the doctrines there was no difference between Islam and Hinduism. Dara’s abiding interest in gnosticism and monotheism continues to endear till this day, serving the ideological positions of those who seek to establish the supremacy of the dominant religion. However, for the crown prince, the search for spiritual truth was for his personal redemption.
Chanda’s retelling of an interesting and somewhat decisive period in medieval history presents Dara as a scholar-philosopher who was pushed into the war of succession more out of compulsion than choice. He may not have been any match to his three brothers, who each controlled a revenue region and were always battle-ready, but his scholarly erudition was to become a legend in history. Dara’s translation of the Upanishads into Persian is one among his works that continues to engage a generation of Indologists. It is a matter of conjecture if without formal training and exposure in military strategy the crown prince could have become an Emperor?
Packed with delightful and unknown details, Dara Shukoh is a sensitive portrayal of the life and times of the poet-prince to whom history remained kind in parts. While he did not live to attain the imperial status his father had ordained for him, his legacy resonates far and wide even after more than three centuries. That the prince pursued the path of religious tolerance in the volatile times of power politics is enough to remind us not to lose out to the forces who are condemned to repeat history. In an engrossing narrative, Chanda tries to construct the mental imagery of his protagonist whose posthumous fame remains unparalleled. It seems there is more to Dara Shukoh then there ever was, relevance of his thoughts have only increased with time.
Dara Shukoh is a brilliant recreation of the bygone era, which presents the enigmatic prince as a mystic with ecstatic assertion about his spiritual vision. Written with empathy and concern, it brings to light the philosophical insights of the person who remained in pursuit of truth all his life. What is interesting though is the manner in which the author has connected the past with the present, in not only detailing the sight of Dara’s burial but about the library that still houses the remainder of his collection of over two million volumes in Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit. If he is the person who could have changed the course of our history as it is widely believed, then will it not be prudent to preserve his works as a historical heritage? The book is suggestive of the need to pay attention to preserving Dara Shukoh’s works because his vision of India remains relevant to this day. Avik Chanda’s meticulously researched book deserves wide attention.
Dara Shukoh
by Avik Chanda
HarperCollins, New Delhi
Extent: 427, Price: Rs. 799.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)