The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 24

BY: SUN STAFF - 26.2 2019

The Tank at Kurukshetra

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

In our last segment we covered the highlights of four different historical versions of the story of the slaying of sadhus at the sacred tank in Thaneswar (Kurukshetra), where Akbar's men joined a battle between the ascetics who were fighting amongst themselves. As mentioned in yesterday's segment, these four written records of the event were set down by historians from Akbar's court, and their telling of events is significantly different than the story of Thaneswar as it was passed down by oral tradition amongst sannyasis themselves.

The earliest recorded version of the sannyasis' story was set down by the missionary and scholar, J.N. Farquhar in 1925, in an article he published in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society. A similar version was published by him in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Societythat same year.

Farquhar's rendition of the events at Thaneswar were told to him by members of the Chausastha monastery at Benaras, and by members of a Giri monestary near Allahabad. The story goes as follows:

"In the sixteenth century there were in North India thousands of Muslim faqirs who went about armed, took part in the wars of the time, and, when there was no regular war, fought for their own hand. One of their practices, as good Muslims, was to attack and kill sannyasis as representatives of Hinduism. As ascetics, these faqirs held a privileged position, and were thus protected from mob violence and also from interference on the part of the government, which was then Muhammadan. Thus, when sannyasis were killed, no one was punished, while sannyasis themselves were prevented from taking violent measures against their enemies by their vow of ahimsa.

Slaying of Sannyasis at Thaneswar
Detail from Tarikh-I-khandan-I Timuriyya, c. 1567


Madhusudana Sarasvati, a well-known sannyasi scholar of the Sarasvati sub-order [of Dasnamis], who lived in Benares in the middle of the century, at last went to Akbar to see whether anything could be done for the protection of the ancient order to which he belonged. Raja Birbal was present at the interview and suggested the way out of the difficulty. He advised Madhusudana to initiate large numbers of non-Brahmans into the sannyasi order and arm them for the protection of Brahman sannyasis.

The Emperor agreed that armed sannyasis should be protected by their sacred character from government interference. Madhusudana, therefore, went and initiated large numbers of Ksatriyas and Vaisyas into seven of the sub-orders [of the Dasnamis], Bharati, Vana, Aranya, Parvata, Sagara, Giri and Puri."

In addition to the sources of information Farquhar relied upon at the Benaras and Allahabad ashrams, he also attended a Khumba Mela at Allahabad in 1918, and researched the historical origins of the various ascetic orders present there. In other words, his telling of the story was not fanciful, but was an attempt to faithfully preserve history and tradition. In his book, The Fighting Ascetics of India, he wrote:

"Readers will not find this agreement between Akbar and Madhusudana Sarasvati mentioned in any historical work. So far as I know, it has not been recorded anywhere. I picked up the information from the lips of sannyasis, who told it [to] me to explain how large numbers of their order came to be fighting men. But though it has come down to us by tradition, there can be no doubt about its truth. All sannyasis in North India hold the tradition; and we may also be certain the Emperor who had given the Hindu an equal place with the Muslim in his empire would at once recognize the justice of Madhusudana's appeal and would respond to it."

In the book, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires by William R. Pinch, the author gives further elaboration on the history behind the story:

"In one respect, Farquhar was correct: there is no mention of a meeting between Madhusudana Sarasvati and the emperor in any written record of Akbar's reign. In seeking to make historical sense of the oral tradition, Farquhar concluded that the Madhusudana interview with Akbar and his courtiers took place well prior to the emperor's visit to Thaneswar.

He settled, rather arbitrarily, on 1565, two years earlier. The ascetic battle at Thaneswar, he argued, "fits so well into the tradition that I am sure every historical mind will at once acknowledge that it ought to be accepted as full corroboration of the story."

According to Farquhar, Akbar "must have chuckled inwardly to see [Hindu ascetics] turn their swords against each other," having just recently "agreed to their organization, in order that they might fight Muslim foes."