Published: Saturday, June 29, 2013

Essay

In a time of blasphemies

In a time of blasphemiesWe live in a time of blasphemies. The Encarta online dictionary defines blasphemy as something said or done that shows disrespect for God or sacred things. We, in post-modern times, don’t hold anything very sacred. Nothing that ought to be sacred, is. Truth isn’t sacred. Life isn’t sacred. Love isn’t sacred. Compassion isn’t sacred. Justice isn’t sacred. Rivers, trees, mountains, the list is endless. Blasphemous times. We are beset with blasphemies: honour killings, sectarian killings, ethnic conflicts, wars, and worst of all, our blasphemous pillaging of the planet and its dwindling natural resources.
In the midst of such collective blasphemies, a lone figure,  a 17th century messiah of harmonious co-existence,  stands out as a beacon of tolerance.  We don’t learn much about him in school history textbooks, and my discovery of him is recent. He was a student of mysticism, a martyred sufi poet. I am talking about Dara Shikoh, the eldest son of Emperor Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal—beheaded in 1659  in a struggle for succession by his younger brother Aurangzeb, who then became king and appended the title Alamgir ( Conqueror of the World) to his name.  Aurangzeb commanded  his material empire,  and Dara in bidding farewell to this material world, ascended to the spiritual kingdom. In hindsight, one could stipulate that Aurangzeb’s imperialistic ambitions were an inevitable prop  for Dara’s  martyrdom, his sublime vision of humanity as an ideal of human co-existence. To make Dara’s execution palatable to the masses, Aurangzeb had to rely on the support of his sycophantic ulema who brought allegations against Dara of blasphemy. According to Maathiri Alamgiri, the official history of Aurangzeb’s reign, Dara’s beheading  was ordered because his views were a  threat to Islam and the state. What was the nature of Dara’s blasphemy? Why did Aurangzeb feel so threatened by his heretic brother?
In a time of blasphemiesDara may not have been as great a military general as his brother, but he was a formidable intellectual adversary.  Though he is the author of many books, Dara’s best known work is the Majmua-ul-Bahrain (The Mingling of The Two Oceans), where the two oceans represent the spiritual traditions of the two faiths he studied extensively, Hinduism and Islam. Dara was an early student of comparative religion long before it developed as an academic discipline, and his short life was devoted to writing about matters spiritual which he gleaned from spiritual texts of Hinduism and Islam. He also made a thorough study of the texts of Christianity. He authored many books on Sufism, including biographies of well-known sufis. He was the first to commission the translation of the Bhagavad Gita and 50 Upanishads into Persian, translations that were later re-translated into Latin and Greek in the 19th century, thus making available for the first time the sacred texts of Hinduism to European scholars.
Dara’s genuine interest in cross-cultural understanding of religion continued to be a threat for the narrow-minded ulema of the Mughal empire. Dara was well aware that his unorthodox views on ‘symbiotics of religion’,  to borrow a phrase from Johan van Manen’s preface to the first English translation of Majmua-ul-Bahrain, would not appeal to many.  Mahfuz-ul-Haq, a  lecturer in Arabic and Persian of Presidency College, Calcutta, was the first to translate the Majmua from Persian into English in 1929.  In the introduction, Dara  clearly states that his book, containing the fruit of his “researches” is  intended “for the members of (his) family and (he has) no concern with the common folk of either community.” Dara is prescient about the narrow-mindedness of the average members of both communities when he asserts that “discerning, intelligent persons will derive much pleasure from this tract (Risala), while persons of blunt intelligence of either side will get no share of its benefits.”   Dara  believed that “truth is not the property of any  particular chosen race but that it can be found in all religions and at all times.”   In the opening chapter of the Majmua Dara Shikoh writes:
“Now thus sayeth this unafflicted, unsorrowing fakir, Mohammad Dara Shikuh, that, after knowing the Truth of truths and ascertaining the secrets and subtleties of the true religion of the Sufis and having been endowed with this great gift (i.e. the Sufistic inspiration), he thirsted to know the tenets of the religion of the Indian monotheists; and, having had repeated intercourse and (continuous) discussion with the doctors and perfect divines of this (i.e. Indian) religion who had attained the highest pitch of perfection in religious exercises, comprehension (of God), intelligence and (religious) insight, he did not find any difference, except verbal, in the way in which they sought and comprehended Truth”  (italics mine).
He asserts, based on his discourses with Hindu and Muslim saints and scholars and after a thorough study of monotheistic texts such as the Quran and the Upanishads, that Hinduism is not averse to monotheism, and that any differences to be found in the spiritual aims of Muslims and Hindus is merely linguistic.   Dara believed that Truth is not the domain of Muslims alone. Does that mean Dara was not a devout Muslim? On the contrary, Dara was steeped in Sufism and Islam, and never renounced his faith.  But apostasy was precisely the charge brought against him by Aurangzeb. Dara was honest, bold and unorthodox in his understanding of the Oneness of God or the concept of Tawhid, and  oneness of God he found in the parallel spiritual traditions of Hinduism and Islam. It was this attempt to synthesize his insights gained from both these traditions, a new kind of intellectual jihad or struggle he waged, that ultimately cost him his life.
The Majmua-ul-Bahrain is a dense, brief text consisting of twenty-two short chapters comprising the common teachings of Vedanta and Sufism. The chief principle of submission to the One Truth or the principle of Tawhid is seen as the surest way to liberation from the sufferings of the world. Dara discovered Oneness of Being to be the highest truth in both religions. I will try to illuminate Dara’s concept of spiritual salvation, with reference to the section on Mukti ( Salvation) in the Majmua. Dara explains that salvation can be of three kinds according to Hinduism.  The three kinds of mukti seem similar to the stages of self-awareness or maqamat  in  sufism. The first kind of mukti is jivan mukti, or salvation in life:
Jivan mukti consists in one’s attainment of salvation and freedom, by being endowed with the wealth of knowing and understanding the Truth, in seeing and considering everything of this world as one, in ascribing to God, and not to oneself, all (i.e. man’s) deeds, actions, movements and behaviour, whether good or bad, and regarding oneself, together with all other  existing objects, as in complete identity with the Truth. Further, he should regard God as manifesting Himself in all the stages and should look upon Brahman, which the Sufis call Alam-i-Akbari ( or the Great World) and is the complete form of God, as the corporeal form of God.”
The precept that salvation can be attained through accepting the Truth of the cosmos and everything in the cosmos as a creation of God is a familiar concept to all believers, whether Muslims or Hindus.
The second kind of salvation, sarvamukti, or liberation from every kind of bondage, comes from annihilation of the individual self in “His Self”, similar to the concept of fana in Sufism. Dara Shikoh explains it thus:
“This (salvation) is universally true in the case of all living beings, and , after the destruction of the sky, the earth, the Paradise, the Hell, the Barhmana , and the day and the night, they will attain salvation by annihilation in the Self (of the Lord). And the Holy verse, ‘now the friends of Allah—they shall have no fear nor shall they grieve, ( Quran 10:62)’ is a reference to this very mukti, or salvation.”
The third kind of mukti or salvation, is sarbada mukti or ‘later salvation.’ This kind of mukti consists of becoming an Arif or knower of God. An Arif is one who has received gnosis or true knowledge of God. According to Dara Shikoh, irrespective of whether the Arif is  Hindu or Muslim, it  is someone who attains freedom and salvation through true knowledge of God:
“……in every stage of the progress, whether this progress be made in this day or night, whether in the manifest or the hidden world, whether the Barhmana appears or not and whether it takes place in the past, the present or the future……the word jannat applies to ma’rifat (or knowledge) of God and abada refers to the perpetuity of this mukti (or salvation);  the reason being that, in whatever state one may be, the capacity to know God (i.e. of ma’rifat) and to receive eternal favour is absolutely necessary.” He quotes a verse from the Quran,  “Give good news, (O Prophet)  to the believers who do good that they shall have a goodly reward” (Quran 18: 2) to further support this analysis,  a perspective he believes is clearly and repeatedly stated in the Quran.  Allah has promised the doers of good deeds a goodly reward, that is, a life in heaven.
However, the most startling insight which Dara shares is his elaboration of what this goodly reward in heaven means. Living in the highest heaven or Firdaus-i-Ala, he writes, is not about taking up literal residence in a garden filled with alluring houris, as much as it is about living in nearness of God, i.e. living with ma’rifat or knowledge of God. And a good soul, regardless of whether Hindu or Muslim, can ascend to this state of nearness to God in this life.  And hence, the idea of going to heaven receives a new meaning.  Heaven, in Dara’s conception is thus a spiritual state, not a place one goes to after death. It is about living in a state of complete liberation from worldly fears and desires. Regardless of whether you are a man or woman, Hindu or Muslim, it is the kind of liberation one comes to after a great inner struggle to overcome the trappings of the ego. Such a state of liberation is ma’rifat. It is true knowledge of God. Dara was convinced of the idea of heaven as this promised state of nearness to God. Death of the body then becomes symbolic death only. It is the death of the ego that makes ma’rifat possible . You die to your ego in order to arrive in heaven, or in a state of nearness to God. Arriving in heaven is about being in a state of certain knowledge of God—in complete humility and tranquility, a state arrived at through the conscious use of one’s intellect and expansiveness of the spiritual heart.  This struggle is equally arduous for a Hindu or a Muslim seeker.
The stuff of heresy, indeed, this! In all his allegedly heretical writing and discourses, Dara held sacred what ought to be held sacred—the human capacity for self-reflection and the oneness of humanity and oneness of God. He saw the same human striving to reach God set against the overwhelming obstacle of the human ego regardless of whether the seeker sought salvation through the Sufi path or Vedanta. We may not agree with all of Dara’s views,  but we have to concede to him the practice of genuine multi-culturalism centuries before the term became fashionable. He studied the Hindu and Muslim spiritual traditions with equal devotion. Each tradition originated in a different place, and at a different  time—but their coming  together and influencing one another through music, poetry, and literature was a fortuitous event and in Dara’s writings he celebrates both these streams as two rivers flowing into one ocean of Truth.
Dara  was an enthusiastic patron of the arts and music, and  a  skilled poet.  The concept of the greater jihad, the highest struggle, the struggle to overcome one’s ego or nafs is the prerequisite to spiritual salvation. It is expressed poignantly in a couplet by Dara.  Mahfuz-ul-Haq quotes it in his  Introduction to the Majmua-ul-Bahrain:
Saltanat sahal ast khud ra ashna faqr kun
Qatra ta darya tawanad shud chara gauhar shod
Kingship is easy; make thyself familiar with the ways of asceticism
(For) if a drop can be the ocean, why (then) should it choose to be a pearl?
An uncannily prophetic bit of poetry.  Perhaps Dara knew about his fate. He was martyred, and in being sacrificed to the worldly, egotistical machinations of his brother, Dara chose not to become a pearl of this world.  Instead, as if willing his own death, he chose to merge himself with the Ocean of Truth. In transcending the limitations of worldly existence, he ascended to heaven, the heavenly state,  his soul finding final refuge in Truth or Tawhid.
In our incoherent times, when most political philosophies have lost their relevance, and it takes nerves of steel to survive in an ethical wasteland, many writers and artists and activists have turned to the universal and enlightened vision of Dara. Books have been written about him.  Plays have been staged about his life. These literary and artistic efforts express our culture’s collective yearning for more Daras, the growing global longing for a spiritual leadership that transcends bickering over literalistic interpretations of different faiths.
What would have been the course of history, if Dara, and not Aurangzeb, had  succeeded to the Mughal throne? Would we have had our philosopher king?  Who knows?

Nighat Gandhi, literary critic and researcher, is based in India