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the Message Continues ... 7/82



Newsletter for June 2008


Article 1 - Article 2 - Article 3 - Article 4 - Article 5 - Article 6 - Article 7 - Article 8 - Article 9 - Article 10 - Article 11 - Article 12



The Philosopher Prince 

                                          The Life and Works of Prince Dara Shukoh


                                       Dr. Aqeel M. A. Imam                     

 The life of Dara Shukoh is at once a story of triumph and extreme tragedy. It is the triumph of someone seeking to reconcile two vastly different faiths and, in his own eyes and those of many others, succeeding in this endeavour. But in this very success lay the seeds of his destruction; a prelude not only to his tragic and untimely end but also of a promised “golden age”, never realized, that would have rivalled if not surpassed that of his illustrious ancestor, Emperor Akbar, in terms of religious, cultural and social pluralism. But the cruel and relentless hand of fate conspired otherwise, ending the realisation of his true destiny, meeting out instead a fate that shattered his dream, firstly with his defeat and imprisonment and then with his untimely and cruel death- a fate worth disposing off, if only it were possible. As the poet said:


گشتم در جهان و دردا  در هيچ شهر و ديار   -   نديد ه     ام    كه    فروشم    بخت     در    بازار 

(عرفی شيرازی)                   


                            I have taken pains to travel every land and state

                              But no place I see where I can sell-off my fate!

(‘Urfi-e-Shirazi, 16th century Persian poet)


The years 1658 and 1659 witnessed a high drama played along the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. The players were four Mughal princes and the trophy the Mughal throne itself. Prior to this, the empire had, for some years, seen a steady polarisation at the imperial court when two of the four princes, already estranged towards each other, came to epitomise diametrically opposite visions of the future of the empire and of India. 


Prince Dara Shukoh (1615–1659) was the eldest son of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal, and the great grandson of Emperor Akbar; he was also the crown prince of the Mughal Empire and perhaps the best Mughal Emperor India could have had! Had fate allowed him, it is certain that he would have lived up to the true meaning of his name. In Farsi, دارا شكوه (dara shukoh) means “the glory of Dara (Darius) or powerful or majestic as Dara”. (1) Judging by both his royal descent and intellectual output and spiritual learning, Dara had glory and majesty in large measures. Though born in the lap of luxury, he longed for the company of awliya (saints) and fuqaraa’  (ascetics), seeking to understand the Truth from all sources of divine wisdom in the fashion of the Buddha and the Mahavira in India, and the many prophets and saviours of the Middle East.  


He was born in 1615 CE in the city of Ajmer. Before his birth Shah Jahan, his father, had visited the tomb of the great Sufi founder of the silsila-e-chishtiya (the Chishti Sufi Order) in India, Moinuddin Chishti, at Ajmer, where he prayed for a son. Till then all his children were daughters. Dara’s birth was therefore a great festive occasion in Delhi, the imperial capital. The Emperor had at last a son and the empire an heir.


As with all Mughal princes and Muslim aristocracy, Dara's early education was entrusted to maulvis and the ‘ulema (2). He was at first taught the Qur'an, then Persian poetry and the art of composition. He also received lessons in history. His chief tutor was Mullah Abdul Latif Saharanpuri, and it was he who developed in the young prince the insatiable thirst for knowledge, especially philosophy, metaphysics and Sufism.


Dara Shukoh’s administrative and military career began early. In 1634, when he was just 19, he received a mansab (rank) with the command of 1,200 zat (soldiers) and 6,000 sawar (cavalry), but by 1657 the number of troops under him reached over 60,000. Later in the year, due to the illness of his father, he was appointed as regent to look after the affairs of the empire.


As someone favoured both by his father, Shah Jahan, and one of his sisters, Jahanara Begum, to ascend the Mughal throne, he was singularly unlucky in martial success, an essential requirement for the job. His three expeditions against the Persian army, in 1639, 1642, and 1653, ended in failure. They also cost him the chance of capturing Kandahar. Similarly, in his later career two major defeats in the war of succession at the hands of his brothers, who had refused to accept Dara as the new Prince Regent, sealed his fate.


It was not long when in 1657 the illness of Emperor Shah Jahan triggered a bitter and desperate battle for power among the four Mughal princes, of whom Dara Shukoh was the eldest. His younger brothers included Shah Shuja, Aurangzeb, and Murad Bakhsh. Although only Dara and Aurangzeb had any real chance to emerge as victors in this fratricidal feud, Shah Shuja declared himself emperor in Bengal. Dara sent his son, Sulayman Shukoh at the head of a force of 22,000 to meet this challenge. Shah Shuja’s army was soundly beaten not far from Varanasi (Benaras). In the meantime, Shah Jahan having recovered from his illness resumed the affairs of the state and became yet another factor in the ongoing struggle for dominance. Despite strong support from the now recovered Emperor and victories over Shah Shuja, Dara was defeated by the combined forces of Murad Bakhsh and Aurangzeb at the battle of Samogarh, 13 km from Agra on 8 June 1658, much to the chagrin of the Emperor and his supporters.


An important contributing factor in Dara’s defeat was the failure of his son, Sulayman Shukoh, to come to his aid following the latter’s decisive victory over Shah Shuja, only to be followed by a futile and unnecessary chase which the nephew, much against the advice of his senior commanders, gave his routed uncle, and which took him as far as Munger, some 350 kilometers east. Only on receiving an urgent message from his father did he abandon his prey and hurriedly headed east to join his father, now under increased threat from the rapidly advancing forces of Aurangzeb and Murad Bakhsh; the two brothers having joined forces to destroy Dara, their eldest brother and Prince Regent, whom they both detested. But it was too late. Sulyman Shikoh had gone too far east to be of any relevance to his father.


The youthful folly of Sulayman Shikoh was a fatal error that cost his father the throne and in turn cost them both their lives, changing dramatically the course of Indian history. However, it would be wrong to single out Sulayman Shukoh for the debacle. There were many other players in the game and all played their part, not least Shah Jahan himself when he earlier on issued ambiguous orders to his generals, Jaswant Singh and Qasim Khan, sent to give Aurangzeb and Murad Bakhsh battle at Dharmat, a small village just over 20 kilometers from Ujjain. Under express imperial orders they were not to initiate any hostilities and make every effort to spare the lives of the rebellious princes. Till the very end of his reign Shah Jahan had imagined that the succession issue could be amicably settled between his four sons with Dara, his favoured choice, emerging supreme.  


After making a desperate attempt to rally support, Prince Dara, seriously weakened though in the end still able to command some 20,000 troops, was defeated a second time a few months later by Aurangzeb at Deorai in March 1659. Following this, his final defeat, he sought refuge at Dadar, Baluchistan, with Malik Jiwan, an Afghan tribal chief whom he had once saved from the fury of Emperor Shah Jahan. But Malik Jiwan was not one to cherish the good deed done to him by his friend, who, now at his mercy, expected a similar good turn. Dara instead was betrayed by Malik Jiwan and handed over to his brother Aurangzeb, the new Emperor.


Prince Dara may not have been a great warrior but he certainly was a profound scholar and a good administrator. A largely gentle, refined and pious Sufi intellectual, he exhibited religious tolerance to a degree that would have made his ancestor, Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar proud. The underlying theme of his efforts was the coexistence of Hindus and Muslims in a pluralistic empire, a point that has prompted many historians to wonder how different India would have been had he overcome his overzealous and intolerant younger brother, Aurangzeb, in the war of succession to succeed the Mughal throne.


In matters of faith Prince Dara was inclined towards spirituality from the very beginning; reading at first the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (sawa). While still in his youth, Dara had come into contact with many Hindu and Muslim mystics, some of whom exerted a profound influence on his intellect. Amongst them most notably it was Mian Mir of Lahore (d.1635 CE), a Qadri Sufi, whose disciple he later became and to whom he was introduced by Mullah Shah Badakhshi in 1639. Badakhshi was himself a disciple and successor of Mian Mir. Prince Dara remained committed to this silsila throughout his life, and as a poet he even adopted "Qādirī" as his pen name. Mian Mir’s eclecticism is evident from the fact that he had also 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 the Divine”, and to which he remained faithful till the end, he came into contact with several other mystics of his day, both Muslim and Hindu. These included Shah Mohibullah, Shah Dilruba, Shah Muhammad Lisanullah Rostaki, Baba Laal Daas Bairagi and Jagannath Mishra.


Dara’s close affinity for wise, spiritual and gifted men led him to seek bridge-building between Muslims and Hindus by way of Sufism and Hindu monotheism; an aim he pursued with single-mindedness and in opposition to the more conservative elements at the imperial court. Dara set about learning more on Hindu religious beliefs and to aid this effort took up a serious study of Sanskrit with the help of the pandits in Varanasi (Benaras). This, together with his knowledge of Persian, enabled him to undertake the translation of a number of Hindu scriptures into the Persian language. Throughout this enterprise a fundamental concern of his was the quest for the commonalities in the scriptures of the Hindus and the Muslims and the discovery of the unity of God (tawheed) as a common and unifying point in both.

In later years, he also ventured to read the Old and New Testaments (respectively the Taurat and the Injeel), the Psalms (Zuboor), the Vedas and the Upanishads, all in an effort to find a common mystical language between various religions, focusing keenly though on Islam and Hinduism; the two faiths that in many respects are so different but whose followers he was appealing to. Towards this end he translated the Upanishads from Sanskrit into Farsi, hoping to make it more accessible to his fellow Muslims.

Dara Shukoh’s Works

Dara has numerous works to his credit, all of them in Persian and very few so far translated into other languages. Those that have been translated are still hard to come by and only a few are readily available at present. His writings fall into two broad categories, one being Sufism and the other metaphysics and philosophy. Writings on Sufism and the lives of awliya (Muslim saints) include:

Safinat ul- Awliya

Sakinat ul-Awliya

Risaala-i Haq Numa

Tariqat ul-Haqiqat

Hasanaat ul-'Aarifin

Iksir-i 'Azam (Diwan-e-Dara Shukoh)

The second category comprises writings of a philosophical and metaphysical nature:


So’aal o Jawaab bain-e-Laal Daas wa Dara Shikoh (also called ‘Mukaalama-i Baba Laal Daas wa Dara Shikoh’)

Sirr-e-Akbar (The Great Secret, Persian translation of the Upanishads)

Persian translations of the Yoga Vashishta and the Bhagvad Gita.

Dara’s Sufism

Interest in Sufism spurred Dara in 1639 to start writing. It is therefore no surprise that his first four works were concerned entirely with Sufis and Sufi thoughts, the first being, Safinat al-Awliyaa (The Ship of The Saints). This constitutes more than 400 short biographies of Sufi saints of various orders. The second book, Sakeenat al-Awliya (The Tranquility of The Saints), deals with the lives of 28 Qadiri Sufis, most being Dara’s contemporaries. The third, Risaala-i Haq Numa (The Manual of the Compass of Truth), aimed at explaining the various theories and practices of Sufi meditation. The fourth work, Hasanaat-ul-‘Aarifeen (The Merits of the Gnostics), is a collection of ecstatic utterances of Sufi saints from the eleventh century down to Dara's own time. All these works show that he was a follower of the doctrine of wahdat al-wujood (the oneness of being), a concept introduced originally by Ibn al-Arabi (3), advocating an inclusive approach towards other religions.

Sufism also led Dara to study the various forms of Hinduism. Initially this was confined to a series of dialogues with a Hindu yogi called Baba Laal Daas. During these exchanges they discussed various concepts of Hinduism and compared them with those of Islam. In the end, Dara committed the whole experience to a book variously entitled: Su’aal-o-Jawaab Dara Shukoh-o-Baba Laal Daas (Question and Answers, Dara Shukoh and Baba Laal Daas) or Mukaalama-i Baba Laal Das wa Dara Shukoh (Conversations of Baba Laal Das and Dara Shukoh). It is generally accepted that as a result of his discussion with Baba Laal and a few Sufis that he came to eventually write Majma’-ul-Bahrayn (The Confluence of the Two Seas). This work represents one of the most important attempts to reconcile Islam and Hinduism in the field of comparative religion. It also became the most controversial work written by him. This effort to forge a new relationship between Hinduism and Islam is the most remarkable ecumenical achievement in the history of Mughal India. It can be said that few have progressed so much spiritually in a single lifetime in this period as did Prince Dara when he finished writing this most important of his works.

Dara’s translation of the Upanishads, also called Sirr-e-Akbar  (The Greatest Mystery) in Farsi and Al-Kitab al-Maknun (The Hidden Book) in Arabic, was a translation of fifty two of the Upanishads. The Farsi translation of the Upanishads was in turn translated later on by Anquetil Duperron into French and Latin, thus introducing the work to Europe. However, he is best remembered for Majma-ul-Bahrayn (The Confluence of the Two Seas), his most famous and important work. In this, rightfully described as his magnus opus, he searches for harmony between Sufism and Hindu Monotheism when he became convinced that the truth contained in the Quran was the same as the one in the Upanishads. He arrived at this conclusion by attempting to focus on the higher aspects both religions rather than point out the obvious differences. His other translations include those of the Bhagvat Gita and the Yoga Vashihsta into Farsi, the latter known as Minhaaj-us-Saalikeen (The Path of the Wayfarers). In the preface to Yoga Vashihsta, he praises the Prophet Muhammad (sawa) as well as showing admiration for the Hindu avatar Ramchand.

The pursuit of a common ground between Muslims and Hindus was always the main concern for Dara. He expresses this in Sirr-e-Akbar (The Great Secret, his Persian translation of the Upanishads), thus:

“And while I was impressed with a longing to behold the Gnostic doctrines of every sect and to hear their lofty expressions of monotheism, casting my eyes upon many theological books, and had been their follower 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 mystics (Hindu Monotheists) and theologians of ancient India do not disavow the Unity of God, nor do they find any fault with the Unitarians.”

Dara's first work, the Safinat ul-Awliya, completed in 1640 CE when he was just 25 years old, being an account of the biographies of several Sufi saints emphasised the importance of Sufi pirs (guides). According to him one can attain true mystical knowledge only through their assistance. Anyone embarking on this path needed a spiritual master:

“God never leaves his people without saints to guide them.   ... Therefore, next to the prophets, there are none other than the saints (awliya) who are nearer to God, the Almighty”.

The true saint is, by his assertion, a pir-i kamil (perfect guide). He further adds: 

“No one is more compassionate and magnanimous, erudite and practical, humble and polite, heroic and charitable than the members of this hierarchy of the ‘awliya’ (saints).”

Continuing with this theme, Dara wrote a second biography of Sufis, the Sakinat-ul-Awliya, which differs from the first, the Safinat-ul-Awliya, in one important respect. While the latter deals with Sufis of various orders, the former discusses only the Qadri Sufis of India. Dara was himself a Qadri, as he explains:

Nothing attracts me more than the Qadri order, which has fulfilled my spiritual needs”.

The Qadri order, like the that of the Chistis, is one of the most popular and widespread of the Sufi silsilahs in India.

Sakinat ul-Awliya was completed around 1642, just three years after his first meeting with the Qadri Sufi, Mian Mir, whose disciple he had become. Dara at the time was 28. In the same year, he came into contact with another Qadri saint, Mulla Shah Badakshani (d.1642 CE), who, like Mian Mir, influenced Dara immensely - a fact easily apparent in the Sakinat ul-Awliya.

Dara's next book on Islamic Sufism was Hasanaat ul-'Aarifeen  ('The Virtues of the Gnostics). It comprises 107 Sufi sayings of the various spiritual orders.  Interestingly, in the introduction he explains the reasons for writing the book:

“I was enamoured by studying books on the ways of the men of the ‘tariqah’ (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 words concerning sublime knowledge, as of which certain bigoted and narrow-minded people accused me of heresy and apostasy. It was then that I realised the importance of garnering the dictum of great believers in the Unity of God and the sayings of saints who have, until now, acquired knowledge of Reality, such that these may provide an argument against those who are the real impostors.”

In the Hasanaat ul-‘Aarifeen, Dara severely criticised those 'ulama who ignored the deeper meaning of the faith, focussing instead on external rituals. His critique was directed towards a mindless and mechanical performance of rituals devoid of spiritual content, challenging also the claims of many of the ‘ulama, who, as he saw, would be ready to sell their faith for worldly gains:

            May the world be free from the holler of the Mullas
            And may none pay any heed to their (empty) fatwas.

As for those 'ulama who claimed to be religious authorities but actually had little or no understanding of the true spirit of religion, Dara wrote:

“As a matter of fact, these are ignoramuses in themselves and seem learned to the ignorant!”

To drive home the argument he composed the following verses:

    “Every prophet and saint suffered hardship and agony,
     Due to the vicious and shameful conduct of the priest.”

Dara also authored two short but important works on Sufism. These concerned the various stages and practices associated with the Sufi tariqah. One called Tariqat-ul-Haqiqat (the Path to Reality) and the other, Risaala-i Haq Numa (Manual of the Compass of Truth). The former has both prose and poetry and begins with a prologue praising God, His Ubiquity and Omnipotence. The following verse of Dara bears testimony to his religious pluralism:


     You dwell in the Ka'aba and the Somnaath(4 a, b)
     And in the hearts of the enamoured lovers.
He goes on to discuss the thirty stages (manaazil) of the Sufi path, the first of which is renouncement from the material world and the last of which is the realisation of the Truth. The same argument, broadly speaking, is put forward in the Risaala-i Haq Numa, where the saalik (seeker) is shown as starting from the ‘aalam-i-nasoot (The Physical Plane), and passing through various stages, finally reaches the ‘aalam-i lahoot (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 to be similar to those used by the Hindu Tantriks and Yogis. These include concentration on the centres of meditation in the heart and the brain. He furthermore suggests that the four planes through which Sufi seekers traverse - nasoot , jabaroot, malakoot and lahoot- correspond almost exactly to the Hindu concepts of the Avasthanam or the four 'states' of jagrat, swapna, shushpati and turiya.

One of the most intriguing works of Dara's is his collection of poems. His diwan, called the Iksir-i 'Azam (The Great Elixir) reveal his mystical ideas as shown in the verses excerpted below.


Dara on Religious Thought and Philosophy in Hinduism

Dara also wrote widely on Hindu philosophy and religious belief systems. In this he followed several earlier Islamic mystics and scholars. What is striking is that he, like many Sufis before and after him, considered the possibility of some Hindu religious figures to have been prophets of God and certain Hindu scriptures of divine origin. In his Sirr-i-Akbar, he writes that a strong monotheistic trend can be discerned in the Vedas and the monotheistic philosophy of the Upanishads, which, in his view, is entirely congruent with the Holy Qur'an.

As mentioned above, for a deeper understanding Hinduism Dara spent many years studying Sanskrit, the classical and religious language of ancient India. For this purpose he elicited the help of many Pandits from Varanasi (Benaras). A number of contemporary scholars of Sanskrit praised him for his generous patronage of the language.  Amongst them was one called Jagannath Mishra, a very prominent Sanskrit scholar who was once weighed against silver coins at Shah Jahan's command and the money handed over to him.

Mishra’s admiration for Dara resulted in him authoring the Jagatsimha, a book in praise of Dara. Other Sanskrit scholars whom Dara patronised included Pandit Kavindracharya. He was granted the very generous, royal pension of two thousand rupees, a princely sum in those days. Similarly Banwali Das, the author of a major historical work on the kings of Delhi from Yudhishtra (a key figure of the epic Mahabharata) to Shah Jahan, was also honoured and received the title of Sarvavidyanidhana.

Of all of Dara’s works, the one most well-known and considered most important on the religious sciences of the Hindus is his Majma-ul-Bahrayn ('The Confluence of the Two Seas), finished when he was almost forty two. This book is a heroic attempt to build on the similarities between Sufism and Hindu Monotheism. Describing it as “a collection of the wisdom of two Truth-recognising groups”, Dara goes a long way to explain the harmony between the spiritual ideas of Islam and Hinduism. The work by its very nature is quite technical, focusing on various terms of Hindu spirituality and their equivalents in Islamic Sufism and asserting that mysticism means equivalence of ideas in both. He further adds that “if an infidel immersed in sin, happens, in a way, to be singing the note of monotheism, I go to hear him and am grateful to him.”

Majma-ul Bahrain is divided into twenty-two sections. In each Dara draws out the similarities between certain Hindu and Sufi concepts and teachings. According to him the Hindu concept of mukti is identical to that of salvation in Sufism as visualised by fana (annihilation of the self in God). Another example being the Sufi idea of 'ishq (Love), which is virtually the same as the maya of the Hindu monotheists. In Dara’s view, from this 'ishq was born the great soul, known either as the soul of the Prophet Muhammad (sawa) to the Sufis or the Mahatman and the Hiranyagarba to the Hindus. The importance of this work in Dara’s eyes ensured that it be translated into Sanskrit. The work appeared under the title
Samudra Sangam, with the hope that the pandits and other Sanskrit scholars may also benefit from his observations.

Dara's translation of Hindu scriptures into Farsi represents a milestone for those engaged in the process of inter-faith dialogue and understanding between the peoples of different religions. The importance of this book is such that having paved the way for reconciling two very different belief systems, viz. Islam and Hinduism, one Semitic the other Indo-Aryan, it may yet serve as a model for improving relations between other faiths.

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 Vashishta, one of the earliest Sanskrit texts on Yoga, translated into Persian.

After establishing cordial and convivial relations with mystics from various backgrounds, amongst whom were several yogis and sadhus, Dara also wrote about them. One such sadhu, as mentioned earlier, was Baba Laal, a follower of the renowned Sufi-Bhakti saint, Kabir Das, and founder of a small monotheistic order named after him, the Baba Laalis; many of Baba Laal’s teachings can be traced to a distinct Sufi influence. A summary of these teachings is in Dara's Mukaalama-e-Baba Laal wa Dara Shukoh  (Conversations of Baba Laal and Dara Shukoh), consisting of seven long conversations between the Baba Laal and Dara Shukoh held in Lahore in 1653. These seven discourses were composed originally in Hindawi, and only later translated into Persian by Dara's chief secretary, Rai Chandra Bhan. As in the case of Dara's translation of the Yoga Vasishta, this text focuses in particular on certain similarities in the teachings of Hindu and Muslim mystics.

The great interest that Dara had developed in exploring monotheistic trends in Hindu philosophy led him to translate the Upanishads into Farsi, the Sirr-e-Akbar ('The Great Secret'), which was completed in 1657. Here again he tries to show the common ground between Hindu and Islamic mysticism. According to him, the “great secret'” of the Upanishads is the monotheistic message, and this being identical to that of the Qur'an makes the two faiths compatible in their very essence. He then proceeded to present in detail the reason behind translating the Upanishads. About seventeen years earlier, in 1640 CE, he had visited Kashmir where a meeting with Hazrat Mullah Shah was to change him.  He describes Mullah Shah as “the Flower of the Gnostics (Goll-e-‘Aarifeen), the sage of sages, the guide of guides, the tutor of tutors, the leader of Unitarians accomplished in the Truth”. Thereafter, he says, he was filled with a longing to “consider the Gnostics of every sect and to hear their high and soaring expressions of monotheism”. Hence, for him began the search for monotheistic ideas in other scriptures.

Being a Muslim, an obvious point of interest for Dara were other Abrahamic scriptures, namely, the Torah of Moses for Jews (Taurat), the Gospels of Jesus for Christians (Injeel) and the Psalms of David (Zuboor) for both. Given that there is as yet no evidence that Dara had any knowledge of either Hebrew (the language of Taurat and Zaboor) or Koine Greek (the language of  Injeel), it is not clear whether these works too were translated into Farsi under his patronage (5). Equally, it is possible that he may have resorted to reading them in Arabic translations which have been known to exist for centuries. In addition, when the books of the ancient Hindus provided him with a non-Semitic, non-Abrahamic spiritual material to study, he noted with delight that certain Hindu 'theologians and mystics' ('ulama-i zahiri wa batini in Islamic theological and metaphysical terms) actually believed in one God. This search for monotheism in the religious philosophies of the Hindus of course stemmed from, as he himself admits, his deep faith in the Qur'an which states that God from time to time has sent prophets to all peoples to preach the worship of one sublime Deity. He went on to lament that “the ignoramuses of the present age”, claiming to be knowledgeable of their religious concepts, have distorted this “fundamental truth”. It was the drive for this “fundamental truth”, that made him journey to Varanasi, gathering several leading Sanskrit scholars for his translation of the Upanishads.

Once this task was finished, he drew the conclusion stated above of the commonality of a monotheistic creed common to Hinduism and Islam, except that in the Hindu scriptures the teachings of monotheism are hidden. They are, however, according to him, in complete “conformity with the Holy Qur'an”. Moreover, he declared the teachings of the Upanishads as “a treasure of monotheism” but comments that “very few are acquainted with this, even among the Hindus”. He therefore argues for an urgent need to bring this sirr-e-akbar (the great secret) to light so that the all can learn the truth about monotheism as contained in Hindu scriptures and, most importantly, his fellow Muslims be made aware of the “spiritual treasures” that the Upanishads are. 

Dara Shukoh’s ventures into the spiritual message of the Upanishads didn’t stop just at what he considered the unveiling of monotheistic strands in these scriptures. He in fact goes as far as to say that the Upanishads in their original forms have the status of divinely revealed texts. This, according to him, is in absolute agreement with those Qur'anic verses that speak about a “protected book” (al-kitab-ul-maknoon), and the verse “none shall touch but the purified ones” (Qur'an:LVI 56, 77-80), being in conformity with the idea that some of the verses of the Qur'an are to be found in their Sanskrit form therein.


One cannot doubt Dara’s sincerity in all this, however, many of the conservative ulema found these ideas as outright heresy and blasphemy. They even accused him of apostasy. As a result, the conservative element and their ilk looked around for someone who, in their eyes, represented “true Islamic beliefs”, rather than have their religion “sullied” by notions of Hindu ideas finding their way into Islam. For this they didn’t have to look very far. What better than another Mughal prince who was devout, militarily more experienced and a better leader compared to Dara. Thus, in Aurangzeb, Dara’s younger brother, they found their ideal. Aurangzeb was a battle-hardened, deeply devout man with a mission to make Mughal India his own.

Despite Shah Jahan’s leanings towards Dara and a certain indifference, if not dislike, towards Aurangzeb, even the Emperor conceded that Aurangzeb is perhaps the one who by his single-mindedness, ruthless ambition and political acumen can shoulder the burden of the empire. This was thus the tragic state of affairs at the time of the start of the war of succession in 1657. The choice was between an intellectually inclined, pluralistic but militarily wanting idealist, a philosopher-king in the making; and a battle-tested, over ambitious, secretive pragmatist who would use every ruse and guile to get what he wanted - and what he wanted was the Mughal throne which he pursued with single-mindedness and succeeded in grabbing against heavy odds.


Dara's Death

Dara was a brave warrior but his want of military and diplomatic skills cost him both the Mughal throne and his life. Many of the court nobles at times felt insulted by his rather arrogant and overbearing behaviour, causing them to become estranged. This insensitivity and lack of leadership only resulted in him failing to strike an air of authority and eliciting much sympathy from them. But still there were many who preferred his open-mindedness, pluralism and high mystical ideals as opposed to Aurangzeb’s show of piety, devotion, and a level narrow-mindedness resulting from a very strict interpretation of divine law. Aurangzeb moreover, was able to command authority by his seriousness and secretive demeanour, and by participating in military campaigns, living rough and sharing hardships with his troops and officers who came to respect him. The two main contenders to the Mughal throne thus polarised the court and the empire along the lines of both ideology and personality. 


Following his defeat and betrayal by the tribal chief Malik Jiwan, Dara Shukoh was paraded unceremoniously, on the 8th of September 1659, in rags and chains through the streets of Shahjahanabad, Delhi, on a decrepit and filthy elephant. Behind him was his teenage younger son, Sipihr Shukoh. Both cut pathetic figures. Mounted behind them with a drawn sword was Aurangzeb’s slave, threatening to kill the captives if any rescue attempt was made. 


A contemporary account by Niccolao Manucci (6) describes in vivid detail this “melancholy spectacle, creating compassion in all those who saw him (Dara). For in such a brief space was the prince, so mighty, so rich, so famous, so powerful, reduced to the last stages of misery.” Adds Francois Bernier (7), another foreign witness: “The crowd assembled upon this disgraceful occasion was immense; and everywhere I observed the people were weeping, and lamenting the fate of Dara in the most touching language … From every quarter I heard piercing and distressing shrieks, for the Indian people have a tender heart; men, women and children wailing as if some mighty calamity had befallen them.”


Dara and Sipihr were at first held prisoners at Khizirabad, a suburb of Delhi. That very night trouble brewed and by the following day the city broke into a riot when Malik Jiwan, the betrayer, was passing through with his henchmen. They were pelted with all sorts of filth, human and animal excrement and stones. Such overwhelming sympathy for Dara ironically sealed his fate. The details of his death are too painful to describe and may be read in any good book on Mughal history. Suffice it to say that he was brutally killed on the night of 9th of September 1659, with his young son, Sipihr Shukoh torn away from him and howling next door. Dara’s head was sent to Aurangzeb, who, it is said forwarded it as a “gift” to their father, Shah Jehan, himself a prisoner in Agra fort. The unsuspecting Shah Jahan on receiving this sinister “gift” assumed that his captor son, now Emperor, had whished to reconcile with his aged and weak father, but was struck with horror when he saw the gruesome sight. Collapsing face forward he lay there, it is told, for several hours.

Dara Shukoh’s death was both very untimely and very tragic:

شوری شد و از خواب عدم چشم گشوديم

ديديم كه باقی است شب فتنه ، غنوديم


From non-existence’s deep dream, in a clamour we rose

Seeing the night of conflict persist, returned to sleep


These lines are said to have been recited by the mystic Sarmad (8) before his execution in another time and at another place, once again on the orders of the clergy of Aurangzeb’s court. They quite  appropriately also apply to the sad end of Dara Shukoh, Sarmad’s friend and fellow Sufi. His mystical heritage in Dara too was condemned by a group of orthodox ulema surrounding Aurangzeb, the outsider who after grabbing the throne in 1658 imprisoned his own aged father and killed all his brothers. The old Emperor died eight years later in prison. Ordering the execution of his own brother, Prince Dara, the rightful heir, with the full support of a cohort of sycophantic, ultra orthodox clergies, many who had an old score to settle, made his task easier. Aurangzeb was made to look like a staunch “defender of the faith” and Dara a disloyal, feeble-minded betrayer of his religion.  

As Shah Jahan's eldest and favourite son, Dara was always considered to be the rightful heir to the throne. He also was seen as the perfect heir to the eclectic and pluralistic approach to governance established by Akbar and pursued most of the time by his immediate successors. In the conflict between Dara and Aurangzeb the root cause may have been political, but it was without a doubt given religious overtones. Dara was accused by Aurangzeb and the ulama attached to the court of blasphemy, infidelity and heresy, all capital offences. Accordingly, he was executed under a royal decree issued by Aurangzeb himself but backed by a fatwa from the Mullas. He lies buried in an ordinary grave inside the tomb complex of his ancestor, the Emperor Humayun, forgotten in present-day India and Pakistan, and at a time more needed than ever.

Dara Shukoh typified gentleness. He was a Sufi intellectual of enormous piety, emphasising the mystical parallels between the Islamic and the Hindu Bhakthi traditions. As one favouring religious tolerance and coexistence between Hindus and Muslims, he followed in the footsteps of his great-grand father, Akbar. It is therefore not surprising that many historians have speculated how different the trajectory of the Mughal India would have been had he prevailed over his bellicose and orthodox younger brother, Aurangzeb.


Dara was also a patron of fine arts, music and dancing, something frowned upon by his austere sibling, Aurangzeb. Besides patronising architecture, art and literature, he was himself a skilled calligrapher, a talented artist and poet, and an accomplished writer and translator. Many of his paintings are of the highest standard and compare well with professional artists of his time. The Dara Shukoh Album, a collection of his paintings and calligraphy assembled from the 1630s until his fall in 1658 was presented to the Royal Mughal Library following his death. Although many of the inscriptions connecting the work to Dara were expunged in an effort to erase his memory, however, not everything was defaced and vandalized. Enough it seems has survived and many items of calligraphy and paintings still bear his mark.


As a poet, Dara was very accomplished, composing a substantial diwan in Farsi, the Iksir-e-'Aazam (The Great Elixir). His poems speak for his Sufi leanings and pluralistic attitude to religion and culture. Below are a few examples rendered into English.



 ‘Ishq-e-Haqiqi  (Divine Love)


O You, from whose name profuse Love rains!

And Love too from your message rains!

Whoever traverses Your path grasps

That from the entrance to the terrace

In Your house only Love rains!



Tawheed (Monotheism)


We have not seen an atom split from the Sun,

Every water-drop is in itself an ocean

With what name should we call the Truth?

Every name is one of God's own


All that you behold except Him

Is but an object of your fancy,

Other than Him all is a mirage

God’s existence is like a boundless sea,

And of people’s like waves in the waters


Consider not I myself separate from Him,

And yet consider I not myself God

The relation the drop bears with the ocean,

In my belief I hold true that and nothing more


Look where you will, all is He,

God's face is forever to see




Tasawwuf (Mysticism)


The more a traveller is unburdened,

The less troubled feels he in his journey

 You too are a traveller in the world,

 Take this as certain, if you are awake

 Fling egoism away from you,

 Like vanity and conceit, it too is a burden

 As long as you live in this abode, be free,

 The Qadri (9) has warned you!


All piety is conceit and hypocrisy! (10)

Can it be worthy of the Beloved?


Turn to none but God,

The rosary and the sacred thread

Just means they are to an end


Unclean with wealth are hands that stink,

How miserable is the soul sullied with gold

Night and day you hear people perish,

You too are to go, how strange then is your conduct!


Whichever way you turn, He is in view,

Are you blind then to assign to yourself Him?


Acquaint yourself with poverty,

Kingship is too easy,

Why would a drop become a pearl

When it can turn into a sea!


Whoever acknowledged this, the day was his,

He who lost himself, found Him

And he who sought Him not within,

Passed away, his quest with him

The Qadri found his Beloved within his soul,

Being of disposition fair,

Won he the favour of the Good



Dara Shukoh’s Legacy

From the above survey it would be obvious that the life and works of Dara Shukoh occupy an important chapter in interfaith dialogue, human understanding and social relations. They constitute a valuable intellectual legacy for humanity in general and the peoples of the Indo-Pak subcontinent in particular. It is therefore a great shame that this gracious person remains a shadowy figure in the land of his birth, a land which he ruled as Prince Regent and for which he was groomed to rule as emperor, before being cruelly deposed and then unceremoniously disposed.

Some may wonder what kind of a ruler Dara Shukoh would have made.

Any answer would necessarily have to be speculative. However, given the ideological position he had taken, one would imagine that acceptance of religious diversity and cultural eclecticism and pluralism would have been a hallmark of his reign. His detractors, however, suggest that unlike his ancestor, Emperor Akbar, a ruler who happened to experiment with pluralism and Sufi ideas, Dara Shukoh was a Sufi thrust in the position of conqueror and king, roles for which he was not suited. 

Whatever may have been Dara’s faults and shortcomings as military commander and would-be ruler, the presence of loyal and able nobles would have allowed him to rule efficiently. His tolerant, pluralistic and eclectic attitude would not only have ensured a better civil society and interfaith relations but would work in his favour as a ruler by eventually eliciting loyalty from the court nobles. In short, his loss was a loss for all those who hail from the subcontinent given that with his premature death we lost a humane ruler who would have changed our course of history for the better.  



(1) This is the more correct meaning and has been given as such by Francis Joseph Steingass in his Persian-English Dictionary (pg 496) as compared to “the possessor of glory” - a common mistranslation. The latter would require an “ezafeh” between the two words in order to confer this particular meaning.  Another point worth noting is that in the original dialect the Farsi word for glory was pronounced as “shukoh”.  The variant “shikoh” is also used in Prince Dara’s name, has the same meaning and perhaps merely represents a difference in dialect. 

(2) Muslim religious scholars who were well versed not only in matters of Islamic laws and at times even history, but also in Classical Arabic language and literature. Following the spread of Farsi as the lingua franca of the Eastern Islamic regions, they were also expected to be proficient this language and its literature. Still later, with the rise of Urdu, the knowledge of grammar and literature of all three languages was expected of them.

(3) The Andalusian Sufi, philosopher and poet, Ibn Arabi (أبن عربي) (born July 28 1165, died November10, 1240) is also known Muhiyyuddeen (محيي الدين or  the Reviver of Religion) and al-Shaykh al-Akbar (الشيخ الأكبر , The Great Master). Full name: Abū abd-Allah Muhammad ibn-Ali ibn Muhammad ibn al-`Arabi al-Hatimi al-TTaa'i (أبو عبد الله محمد بن علي بن محمد بن العربي الحاتمي الطائي).

Born in Medinah al-Mursiya (present day Murcia) in Al-Andalus on 17 Ramadan 560 AH (July 28, 1165 CE). Moved to Sevilla when he was eight and in 1200 CE, at the age of thirty-five, he left Spain for good. Lived near Mecca for three years, where he wrote  Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya (The Meccan Illuminations). Left Mecca in 1204 CE for Anatolia and settled in Damascus in 1223, where he spent the last seventeen years of his life. Died at the age of 76 on 22 Rabi' II 638 AH (November 10, 1240CE), and is buried in Damascus.

(4a) Somnath: A Hindu temple of Shiva located on the western coast of Gujarat, India, is one of the twelve symbols of Shiva. Mentioned in the Rig Veda, the name means "The Protector of Moon God". Also known as 'The Eternal Shrine', since it has been destroyed six times and rebuilt every time.

(4b) This verse of Dara is very reminiscent of the following lines of Ibn al-Arabi:


لقد صار قلبى قابلا ً كلُّ صورتٍ

فمرعى  لغزلانٍ   و  ديرٌ  للرّحبانِ

و  بيتٌ  لأوثانٍ  و كعبةُ  طائفٍ                    

 والواحُ توراةٍ و مُصحفُ قرأنِ


My heart can take all forms

 It is a pasture for the gazelle

 For the monks a cloister

 A temple for idols and

 Ka’bah for the pilgrim

 Tablets of the Torah

 And pages of the Qu’ran

The Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi had also come to exercise much influence at the court of Shah Jahan.

(5) There is some evidence that Taurat (The Torah) was translated into Farsi from Hebrew by the mystic Sarmad (see 8 below).

(6) Niccolao Manucci (1639–1717): Italian writer and traveller who worked in the Mughal court and served Dara Shikoh, Shah Alam, Raja Jai Singh and Kirat Singh. His major work is "Storia do Mogor" (History of Mughals). Manucci’s is supposed to be a first-hand account of the Mughals of his times, and the book is considered to be the most detailed account of life in the Mughal court. It deals with the time of the later reign of Shah Jahan and the rule of Aurangzeb. About his own work, he says: "I must add, that I have not relied on the knowledge of others; and I have spoken nothing which I have not seen or undergone...". However, there have been some very serious issues regarding the veracity of this work. Despite this, the book gives some idea of events and life in 17th and 18th century Mughal India.


(7) Francois Bernier (1625–1688): French physician and traveler from Anjou, who or 12 years he was the personal physician of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, but he was also a writer. His book, “Travels in the Mughal Empire”, covers mainly the reigns of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb.

(8) Sarmad: Persian mystic, poet and saint who travelled to India in the 17th century was of supposedly Jewish, possibly Armenian origin. Known for his irrevernce to all organised religions. Also wrote religious poetry in the form of rubaiyats (quatrains). He was close to the Prince Regent, Dara Shikoh and according to some sources produced a translation of the Taurat into Farsi. Beheaded in 1661 on the orders of Emperor Aurangzeb for composing heretical poetry, he is buried near the Jama Masjid in Delhi, India.

(9) Qadri was Dara Shukoh’s takhallus (pen name)

(10) The critique and satire on a show of piety is to be found in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu poetry. In Urdu, for example we have:  


سوداگری نہيں یہ عبادت خدا كی ہے

اے بیخبر جزا كی تمنا بھی چھوڑ دے




Its worship of the Lord, no business this,

O’ ignoramus, abandon the wish for reward





عبادت  خدا  كی ،  با  أمید  حور

مگر تجھ كو زاہد حیا كچھ نہیں


سید امداد امام اثر


In houries’ hope you worship God

O’ priest you are without  shame


          Syed Imdad Imam (Asar)




The Mughal Throne by Abraham Eraly, Phoenix Books , 2003


The Empire of the Great Mughals: History, Art and Culture by Annemarie Schimmel, Reaktion Books, 2004.


The Mughal Empire by John F. Richards, Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Majma’-ul-Bahrain, ( The Confluence of the Two Seas) by Dara Shukoh, Ed. and translated by M. Mahfuz-ul-Haq. Calcutta, 1929.


Hasanaat-ul-‘Arifeen, by Dara Shukoh. Ed. Syed Makhdoom Rahim. Tehran, Iran, 1973.


Dara Shikoh and the Upanishads by Tara Chand, Islamic Culture; 397-413, (1943).


Risaala-e Haqq-numaa by Dara Shukoh.  Ed. Sayed Muhammad Reza Naeemi, ‘Muntakhabaat-e- Aathaar’ Tehran, Iran, 1956.


Safīnat-ul-Awliyaa by Dara Shukoh, Kanpur, India, 1900.


Sirr-e-Akbar [The Oldest Translation of Upanishads from Sanskrit into Persian] by Dara Shukoh; Edited by Tārā Chand and Muhammad Reza Jalaali Na’imi. Tehran, Iran, 1957.


Sakinat al-Awliyaa by Dara Shukoh, Ed. Sayyid Muhammad Reza Jalaali Na’ini and Tara Chand. Tehran, Iran, 1965.


Words of Ecstasy in Sufism by C. W. Ernst, Albany, New York, 1985.


Dara Shikoh: Life and Works by Bakramajeet Hasrat; Delhi, 1979.


Muslim Nationalism: Conflicting Ideologies of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb by Syed Arshad Karim, Journal of the Pakistan Historical Society 33, part. 4, 288-296, (1985).

Commingling of Two Oceans: Majma-'Ul-Bahrain : a Discourse on Inter-Religious Understanding  by  Prince Muhammad Dara Shukoh; Translator: Muhammad Mahfuz-al-Haqq – Gurgaon; Hope India Publications, 2006.- 187 S. (Sources of History Series ; Vol. 1)


A History of India by Hermann Kulke and Dietmar Rothermund, Croon Helm, 1986.


A New History of India by Stanley Wolpert, Oxford University Press. 1993.




Dr. Aqeel M. A. Imam (PhD), is Senior Scientist at Erasmus MC, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Apart from science, his interests include history and philosophy; theology and mysticism; music and visual arts; and the languages of East and West.  









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