The Mughal Influence on Vaisnavism, Part 40

BY: SUN STAFF - 29.3 2019

Abu'l Fazl presenting Akbarnama to Emperor Akbar

A serial presentation of the Mughal effect on Vaisnava society.

In recent segments of this series we began to explore the religious assemblies established by the Mughal Emperor Akbar at his Ibadatkhana compound in Fathepur Sikri, Rajasthan. After having destroyed countless Vaisnava and Saivite temples, desecrating the deities, and unceremoniously taking the lives of devotees and citizens throughout North India, Akbar began a political campaign to ease the pain of that carnage and improve his reputation amongst the locals.

With his establishment of the Ibadatkhana, at which he officially presided over many religious debates and conclaves of varying religions, Akbar was said to be promoting his newest policy, Sulh-I-kul -- 'peace to all', irrespective of religious beliefs, caste or creed.

We have offered previous quotes from Akbar's court historian, Abu'l Fazl, in whose writings we find various narrations of the events that took place at the Ibadatkhana, and Akbar's rationale for starting the assemblies there. Abu'l Fazl writes glowingly about Akbar's altruistic intentions, his thirst for knowledge, and his desire to facilitate the gaining of common ground amongst all men of religious learning. As he puts it, the Ibadatkhana was created to 'establish a feast of truth'.

In one such passage of glorification, Abu'l Fazl wrote:

"Wisdom and deeds would be tested, and the essence of manhood would be exhibited. Those who were founded on truth entered the hall of acceptance, while those who were only veneered with gold went hastily to the pit of base metal. There was a feast of theology and worship. The vogue of creature-worship was reduced. The dust-stained ones of the pit of contempt became adorners of dominion, and the smooth-tongued, empty-headed rhetoricians lost their rank.

To the delightful precincts of that mansion founded upon Truth, thousands upon thousands of inquirers from the seven climes came with heartfelt respect and waited for the advent of the Shahinshah. The world's lord would, with open brow, a cheerful countenance, a capacious heart, and an understanding soul pour the limpid waters of graciousness on those thirsty-lipped ones of expectation's desert, and act as a refiner.

He put them into currency, sect by sect, and tested them, company by company. He got hold of every one of the miserable and dust-stained ones, and made them successful in their desires—to say nothing of the be-cloaked and the be-turbaned. From that general assemblage H.M. selected by his far-reaching eye a chosen band from each class, and established a feast of truth."

While this narrative was no doubt meant to inspire the ranks of Akbar's subordinates, and hopefully to follow him down through history, there are other instances where Abu'l Fazl's descriptions of the Ibadatkhana debates are more realistic and believable. The following, for example, is taken from an earlier recension of the Akbarnama. Here Abu'l Fazl is relating the words spoken by Akbar about his intentions in sponsoring the religious debates:

"I have organized this assembly (majlis) for this purpose only that the facts of every religion, whether Hindu or Muslim, be brought out in the open. The closed hearts of our (religious) leaders and scholars be opened so that the Musalmans should come to know who they are! (As) they themselves are unaware (about their religion): They only think of Muslims (i.e. themselves) as those who recite kalima, consume meat and perform sijda on the earth. (They should know) Muslims are those who wage war on their 'self" (jihad bin nafs) and control their desires and temper; and surrender (themselves) to the rule of law."

We can only wonder at the actual level of participation Akbar personally took in the assemblies. It seems quite certain that it would have been his appointed functionaries who would have performed the tasks of seeking out the candidates for debate, categorizing them and testing them, what to speak of finding every "miserable and dust-stained" ascetic with a message to preach, and arranging for him to get audience at the Ibadatkhana.

The second passage above by Abu'l Fazl is an indication of the serious political situation Akbar faced, particularly near the end of his Ibadatkhana experiment. His critics were casting all manner of asperions in his direction, suggesting that he had lost his Islamic roots, having been influenced by the infidels. It is very understandable that Akbar would promote explanations such as this one, describing his religious debates as an exercise in promoting and improving the faith amongst Muslims who themselves were losing its essence.