The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 30

BY: SUN STAFF - 7.2 2019


 

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

In the last few segments of this series, we have quoted several times from the book, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires" by William R. Pinch, which provides a great deal of interesting background on the battle between the sadhus at Thaneswar, and Akbar's intervention between the fighting camps. We have, of course, chosen passages from this book and other works that deliver what we think is a balanced narrative on this interesting aspect of Mughal history.

In the Afterword of the chapters on Thaneswar and 'Yogi Akbar', Mr. Pinch presents his summary remarks on the importance of the interactions between the Mughals and the yogis. Unfortunately, we do not find his conclusions very satisfying. As is so often the case when academics are delving into the region of spiritual history, there is an absence of understanding of the transcendental nature of things, and we find this is the case with Mr. Pinch's closing remarks.

He writes:

"Akbar's interactions with yogis and sannyasis, and the stories that emanate from them, are significant not simply because they reflect the emperor's open-mindedness when it came to matters of religion (as contrasted to the bigoted Badauni…). Rather, they matter because they show the degree to which the world of early modern India cannot be reduced to Hindu versus Muslim. This is not to say that the categories of "Hindu" and "Muslim" lacked meaning and relevance in the early modern period – only that they do not exhaust the range of possibilities for what constituted the religious or the political.

Cutting across the political, civilizational meanings that adhered to the categories Hindu and Muslim were the practices and attitudes associated with ascetics, particularly yogis.Yogis were concerned not with the niceties of group identity in relation to an external God, but with how to cultivate supernormal powers within and thereby attain immortality. Whatever we may make of their claims, it is clear that many (and… many besides the Mughal emperor) regarded yogis as both dangerous and compelling.

Understanding yogis as "Mughal" should not be seen as an attempt to claim that they were somehow not religious. Yogis were, by my definition, deeply religious precisely because they were concerned with and consumed by the question of how to cheat death. Indeed, I would even go so far as to suggest that they stood at the center of religion – and it was precisely that posture that attracted the Mughal emperor to them.

By calling yogis "Mughal" I wish to emphasize the degree to which their history, and the history of the warrior ascetics who are tied to them, was shaped by Mughal imperial politics and culture. This does not mean they were born of the Mughal imperial politics and culture; it does mean that they cannot be understood independently of it. Even the Dasnami order, which links itself back to the agency of the great south Indian VedantinShankara (beyond whom it is difficult to imagine anyone being regarded as more central to Hindu self-understanding), seems to bear the imprint of the Mughal experience.

There is, of course, much that we cannot know about the intricacies of yogi involvement in Mughal affairs, or Mughal involvement in yogi affairs, for that matter. But it is clear that the Mughals, and not simply Akbar and Jahangir, but certainly Aurqangzeb and probably Shah Jahan as well, were interested in yogis and yogis were interested in them.

Secondarily, I hope to jolt us out of the notion that yogis were fundamentally Hindu or Muslim, and to prompt, besides, a reflection on the question of what precisely constitutes being Hindu or Muslim. As I suggest in the chapters that follow, the devotional meanings and styles that we today associate with being Hindu were coming into shape in the Mughal and late Mughal period."

Our readers will undoubtedly have taken note of the many misconceptions woven into Mr. Pinch's narrative, and will recognize the undeniable mood of 'academia'. But in order to close this segment on a proper footing, and for the record, let us offer a few comments on the author's conclusions.

First, one might take exception to his characterization of Akbar's historian, Badauni, as "bigoted". Based on the material quoted from Badauni's manuscripts, it would seem more fair to label him "a fundamentalist". Even calling him a fanatic would seem overdone. He was clearly a staunch Muslim, who took exception to Emperor Akbar's playing loose with strict Islamic standards. There is no fault in this, nor is there fault with a strict follower of one tradition criticizing those in other camps. This is the nature of religious diversity amongst conditioned souls.

Further, Pinch himself has given us several angles of vision to consider on what may have motivated Akbar's interactions with the yogis, and some of these had nothing to do with "open-mindedness". In fact, considering a motivation of statesmanship, militaristic strategy or even the raw aggression of an invader fits much more realistically with Akbar's slaughter of the Hindus at Chittor Fort.

Pinch's notion that early modern India cannot be reduced to labels of "Hindus" and "Muslims" is surely correct, although he seems to compare such labels to a baseline of what constitutes religious or political matters. He says that such labels "do not exhaust the range of possibilities for what constituted the religious or the political", inferring a certain range, or context. But what is not mentioned, or even hinted at, is the reality of the strict religious boundaries represented by the Islamic faith, what to speak of the boundaries of what is not actually "Hinduism", but rather the eternal religion of sanatana-dharma.

Ultimately, it is in the sphere of sanatana-dharma that the actions of yogis must be considered and judged, yet this transcendental realm does not seem to come into Pinch's formula at all. And what is significant about this, and relevant to the entire 'Mughal Influence' series, is that the same absence of proper context is prevalent is almost every historical record we have available in our study of the Mughal invasion of India.

Pinch makes an interesting comment here:

"Yogis were concerned not with the niceties of group identity in relation to an external God, but with how to cultivate supernormal powers within and thereby attain immortality. Whatever we may make of their claims, it is clear that many (and… many besides the Mughal emperor) regarded yogis as both dangerous and compelling."

First, the yogis at Thaneswar were very concerned with 'group identify' – that was the source of the fighting. Second, we see that Pinch is making far too broad a generalization about "yogis". The yogis he refers to as "dangerous and compelling" were no doubt the Nagas he described in the context of Thaneswar. But Akbar interacted with many types, and camps of yogis. For instance, the sadhu Muinuddin Chishti, who Akbar and his son visited at Ujjain and later at Mathura, was not an ash-smeared, spear carrying Naga.

To lump all yogis together ignores the fundamental structure of parampara, as does the broad statement that all yogis are concerned with 'cultivating supernatural powers to attain immortality'. Many yogis – and most certainly the bhakti-yogis, would have their eye on devotion to Visnu or Sri Krsna, not simply on "immortality", which in Pinch's lexicon most likely refers to the Mayavada version. But we know that bhaktas played a role in Akbar's pastimes, and we'll delver further into that in a segment to come, as we talk about his court at Galta and the influence of the Vaisnavas.

In the following statement, we get further clarity on the misunderstanding underlying Pinch's conclusions:

"Understanding yogis as "Mughal" should not be seen as an attempt to claim that they were somehow not religious. Yogis were, by my definition, deeply religious precisely because they were concerned with and consumed by the question of how to cheat death. Indeed, I would even go so far as to suggest that they stood at the center of religion – and it was precisely that posture that attracted the Mughal emperor to them."

The phrase "cheat death" tells us much about Pinch's understanding of yoga – the science of union with God, which is practiced by true yogis. As we know, there is no such thing as 'cheating death', nor is that even remotely part of any yogic practice. It's just an uninformed turn of phrase. And again, Pinch is lumping all yogis into the same basket, unfairly. As for those yogis who 'stood at the center of religion' – the ones Akbar was attracted to – the reader would be better served to be given an understanding of difference between true religion and the sort of politicized religiosity that might be exhibited by some of the warring clans of Nagas who involved themselves in Mughal politics and intrigue.

What is most unfortunate about the disconnect in this regard is that we don't have an opportunity to glean from these academic histories about Akbar whether or not, or to what degree, he was actually drawn to and influenced by the transcendental realm of Vedic culture, not just a politicized version, or a school of religiosity. And this would be the most valuable thing of all for us to understand about Akbar. By that measurement, we might actually be able to fairly judge the man.

Mr. Pinch goes on to give high honors to Shankaracarya, suggesting that he is the epitome of all things "Hindu". He suggests that the ascetics who claim lineage to Shankar can be called "Mughal yogis" without offense, because the label does not deprive them of their religious lineage.

One of Pinch's most interesting comments is this statement:

"But it is clear that the Mughals, and not simply Akbar and Jahangir, but certainly Aurqangzeb and probably Shah Jahan as well, were interested in yogis and yogis were interested in them."

Again, this notion begs clarification of the difference between so-called yogis and real yogis. Pseudo-yogis would certainly be interested in the Mughals, as they would naturally themselves be under the influence of the modes and therefore attracted to wealth and power. But what kind of interest would a true yogi have in the Mughal rulers? That's a much more interesting question. They would, for example, be interested in the Mughal rulers because they displayed essential political power, motivated by material desire – that is, they were demonstrating a particular flavor of nescience, in a big way. This would no doubt be an interesting study for real yogis, who understand the truth as stated in Sri Brahma-samhita, that we must have knowledge of both nescience and the Absolute Truth.

True yogis would also be interested in the Mughals due to their compassion and equal vision. The intruders were destroying temples and deities, killing, oppressing and subjugating the Indian citizens, killing cows, and causing all sorts of disturbance and suffering. This, however, is not the sort of interest in the Mughals that Mr. Pinch suggested the yogis had. Again, he is on the mundane playing field in drawing his conclusions, and gives no information about the opposing transcendental playing field, and where the two do and do not meet.

Pinch's final paragraph nicely illustrates many of the points we've made in this critique:

"Secondarily, I hope to jolt us out of the notion that yogis were fundamentally Hindu or Muslim, and to prompt, besides, a reflection on the question of what precisely constitutes being Hindu or Muslim. As I suggest in the chapters that follow, the devotional meanings and styles that we today associate with being Hindu were coming into shape in the Mughal and late Mughal period."

Again, he suggests that the yogis were actually some kind of blend, or hybrid – taking the best of both the Hindu and Muslim cultures. Of course, a yogi schooled in sanatana-dharma is another matter entirely.

Pinch gets the final question right, although he means it differently: precisely what constitutes being Hindu or Muslim? The true answer to that question must incorporate knowledge of sanatana-dharma and an explanation of how it differs from "Hinduism". Otherwise it is a study of apples and oranges, or simply an exercise in exploring the mundane.

Finally, we close with one of Mr. Pinch's poorest conclusions: his suggestion that "the devotional meanings and styles that we today associate with being Hindu were coming into shape in the Mughal and late Mughal period."

No. The devotional meanings that have anything at all to do with yogis existed millennia before the Mughals arrived on the scene. These eternal transcendental meanings originated with the Supreme Personality of Godhead, and were spoken to Lord Brahma, who handed them down through disciplic succession to all true yogis. In that context, the Mughals were but a flash in the pan.