The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 28

BY: SUN STAFF - 4.3 2019

Akbar visits the sadhu Muinuddin Chishti at Ajmer

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

In previous segments, we've been discussing Akbar's intervention in the battle of ascetics at Thaneswar tank, and the various historical records about the dynamics of his involvement. Some modern historians have speculated that Akbar interceded as a show of power, while others say he was involving himself in the business of the Naga sannyasis because he aimed to employ them as spies and leverage their alliance. There is some evidence to support both these conclusions.

Others suggest that Akbar got involved out of sentiment, taking sides in the battle of sadhus to help those he truly favored, and in fact, that this was a demonstration of a latent sentiment and attraction to the Hindu religious faith. Again, there is some evidence to support this notion, although we also find many pro-Muslim narratives that employ this line of reasoning in support of the idea that Akbar was benevolent to the Hindus, not a barbarian who murdered them and pillaged their temples and villages. The latter argument is transparently political, regardless of their being a seed of truth in it.

Some of the most interesting historical evidence of Akbar's pro-Hindu sentiments come from the writings of one of his court historians, Abdul Qadir Badayuni. Over the course of Akbar's reign, Badayuni became quite critical of the Emperor, believing that he had swung too far away from his strict Islamic religious standards, having been negatively influenced by the infidel Hindus, and by some of his more liberal court advisors.

In the mid-1570's, Badayuni wrote about some of Akbar's latest decrees that were intended to pacify the Hindus, such as prohibitions on animal killing, daily sun worship, fasting, and vegetarianism. When Akbar began visiting the ashrams of various sadhus and ascetics, and supposedly dabbling in their practices, Badayuni's criticism increased.

For the most part, Badayuni's criticism was carefully and subtly presented, obviously because he was directly employed by Akbar. For example, he wrote:

"His Majesty [had] built outside the town [of Agra] two places for feeding poor Hindus and Musalmans, one of them being called Khairpura, and the other Dharmpurah… As an immense number of Jogis also flocked to this establishment, a third place was built, which got the name of Jogipurah.

His Majesty also called on some of the Jogis, and gave them at night private interviews, enquiring into abstract truths; their articles of faith; their occupation; the influence of pensiveness; their several practices and usages; the power of being absent from the body; or into alchemy, physiognomy, and the power of omnipresence of the soul. His Majesty even learned alchemy, and showed in public some of the gold made by him.

On a fixed night, which came once a year, a great meeting was held of Jogis from all parts. This night they called Sivrat [Shivaratri]. The Emperor ate and drank with the principal Jogis, who promised him that he should live three or four times as long as ordinary men. His Majesty fully believed it, and connecting their promises with other inferences he had drawn, it became impressed on his mind as indelibly as though it were engraved on a rock."

(From Badahuni's Muntakhabu't Tawarikh, Vol. II, pp. 334-336.)

Badayuni's criticism of Akbar is essentially contained in the statements of his activities, which any strict Muslim would understand to be acts of apostasy. The last sentence, however, is rather more obvious.

In a footnote to his book, Warrior Ascetics and Indian Empires (pg. 51, fn 46), author William R. Pinch writes:

"The religious experiments on the part of the emperor and those around him have been understood in modern historical writing either in terms of political status – the political status of non-Muslims (primarily Hindus) in an empire led by Muslims, or the political status of individuals gathered around the emperor's person – or in order to ascertain their philosophical and religious origins. The literature is too voluminous to detail…

This modern scholarship is structured in large part by the importance of religion as a basis for political belonging in the twentieth century. Scholars have either looked to Akbar as an exemplar of Indian secularism, or they have sought to show the ways in which he used a cult of personality as an instrument to forge new loyalties across the boundaries of religion and ethnicity. However, there has been little attempt to understand the yogis themselves and why the Mughal emperor may have been interested in them."

Akbar with Vaisnava and Sufi