The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 37

BY: SUN STAFF - 25.3 2019

Diwan-i-Khas – Hall of Private Audience 
Ibadatkhana at Fathpur Sikri, in Rajasthan

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

During his 49-year reign as Mughal Emperor in India, Akbar demonstrated various sentiments towards the so-called "infidels" – the non-Muslim residents of India who were predominantly Vaisnava and Saivite. Once the years of fierce battle were over, and his North India challengers were well in hand, Akbar turned his attention to leveraging his position of power in local regions, employing various political strategies to take advantage of relationships, assets, and territory.

In previous segments we read about his efforts to employ various ascetics and holy man in his service as allies, emissaries and spies. We've also touched upon Akbar's involvement in the arts, including painting, architecture and literature, and we'll look at that in more detail later on. Today, we'll begin to explore another area of Akbar's presence in India – his establishment of an extensive series of religious debates between Muslim scholars and representatives of other religions, including the Vaisnavas, Saivites, Sikhs, Carvaka atheists, and Christians.

Some historical writers suggest that Akbar's patronage of scholarly religious debates was a show of his personal philosophy of moderation and tolerance towards other religions – that he was really something of a renaissance man, with a keen interest in diverse spiritual practices. Others suggest that it was no such thing, but was simply another strategic means Akbar employed to gather intelligence, ingratiate himself with local religious leaders, and appear to be tolerant in order to quell sustained uprisings against his regime. Although we are certainly not scholars in the field, our understanding lies with the latter scenario.

The tradition of debate in Islamic culture over the ages appears to be quite different from our Vaisnava tradition of debate. As established in the Vedas, true debate is a process of establishing the Absolute Truth, through a methodical series of repeating, discussing, arguing and defending the descending Truth handed down by the Supreme Personality of Godhead through the disciplic succession. In the Muslim realm we do not find such longevity of transmission, or the breadth and depth of sampradayas who carry the Absolute Truth forward, nor the volumes of sastra that record the Absolute Truth.

In its pure form, debate in the Vaisnava tradition is intended to simply establish the Truth and explore the finest points of siddhanta, with no ulterior motives of power, wealth or prestige. Sadhus, who are expert transcendentalists, engage in discourse while materialists get the benefit of listening, and learning. Of course, like every other pure religious practice, the science of Vaisnava debate also becomes debilitated over time until it is re-established by the Lord or His personal representatives.

In the Muslim culture, however, religious debates or assemblies, known as mahzar, were very often used by proponents of the orthodoxy to consolidate their sway over dissenters. In the time of Akbar, and much further back in pre-Mughal times in India, such mahzar assemblies were primarily composed of the Hanafi school of Islamic thought, who were intent on dealing with controversial issues that had immediate social importance. The need to shore of the foundation of followers was all the more pressing, given the fact that they were a long way from home, in foreign territory where they were being influenced by the Vedic culture.

As early as 1570 A.D., just 14 years after he took power, Emperor Akbar began his own religious assemblies, or majlis. According to court historians and commentators of the day like Badayuni, Abu'l Fazl and Shaikh Nurul Haq, Akbar's version of these religious assemblies was different. Rather than simply using them as a forum to command loyalty and opinion, Akbar supposedly sponsored the debates to demonstrate his religious tolerance and love of intellectual reason (aql) over Islamic traditionalism (taqlid).

Around 1570, Akbar constructed an abode for religious debates, known as the Ibadatkhana at Fathpur Sikri, in Rajasthan. Fatehpur Sikri is located in the Agra district of Uttar Pradesh, India. It served as the capital of Akbar's Mughal empire from 1571 until 1585. Although Akbar spent 15 years building his court there, he abandoned it after only 14 years, because of the great shortage of water. Even today, no one lives at the site itself, although it is an historical destination for travelers.

The Ibadatkhana complex is comprised of numerous palaces, court buildings, tanks, etc. One of these, the daftarkhana, is thought by some to be where the actual religious assemblies took place.

Akbar's court historian Badayuni, whose writings we have included in previous segments of this series, wrote not only for Akbar's consumption, but he also wrote secretly, putting down for history his true personal thoughts on Akbar's pastimes, some of which he was saw unfavorably. Badayuni gave the following description of Akbar's mood at Fathpur Sikri:

"In the year nine hundred and eighty-three (983) [1575 A.D.] the buildings of the Ibadatkhana were completed. The cause was this. For many years previously the Emperor had gained in succession remarkable and decisive victories. The empire had grown in extent from day to day; everything turned out according to his will, and no opponent was left in the whole world. His Majesty had thus leisure to come into nearer contact with ascetics and the disciples of his reverence [the late] Khwaja (Muinuddin Chishti of Ajmer), and passed much of his time in discussing the Word of God and the word of the Prophet. Questions of Sufism, scientific discussions, enquiries into subtleties of Philosophy and Law (fiqh), were the order of the day. His Majesty spent whole nights in praising God; he continually occupied himself in pronouncing Ya huwa, and Ya hadi, in which he was well-versed. His heart was full of reverence for Him, who is the true Giver, and from a feeling of thankfulness for his past successes he would sit many a morning alone in prayer and meditation on a large flat stone of an old building which lay near the palace in a lonely spot, with his head bent over his chest, gathering the bliss of the early hours of dawn. When he heard that Sulaiman Kararani, governor of Bengal, used every night to offer tahajjud (night long prayers) in the company of some 150 persons consisting of renowned Shaikhs and Ulama, and used to remain in their society till morning listening to commentaries and exhortations, and then, after offering up the morning prayers, would occupy himself in State-business, and the affairs of the army, and of his subjects and when also news arrived from Badakhshan of the coming of Mirza Sulaiman, who was a prince of Sufi tendencies…"

We can take with a grain of salt Badayuni's characterization of Akbar's leanings towards religious discourse as being the fruit of leisure he'd earned, following his rigorous battles. The likelihood that Akbar became so purely motivated in the wake of his pastimes of ruthlessly slaying countless innocent Hindus, and destroying temples and deities, is as much an exaggeration as Badayuni saying that Akbar had 'no opponent left in the whole world'.