A mystic's misfortune

A mystic's misfortune

Dara Shukoh’s vision for a just, tolerant, secular and humane India seems today as unrealised as his dream of becoming the king

Dara Shukoh - The Man Who Would Be King

A contemplative ‘what if’ nebula hangs over Avik Chanda’s gripping book on Dara Shukoh. Dara was Emperor Shah Jahan’s eldest, most favoured son and heir apparent. He, however, did not ascend the throne and instead met a grisly end at the hands of his brother Aurangzib (author’s spelling). Historians have long been piqued by what might have been had Dara become king instead of Aurangzib and here is a whole book advancing that line of speculation.

Chanda’s biography of Dara Shukoh is a meticulously researched work and the author is able to make the characters, all belonging to a distant past, come alive. More importantly, one gleans how history impacts not just the past, but also the future.

Dara, born ironically at what was considered an auspicious time, remains at his father’s side like a faithful shadow for a long while. As the Emperor ages, Dara becomes the de-facto administrator of Mughal India. When Shah Jahan dies, the inevitable battle of succession ensues. In the Islamic-Timurid paradigm of power equations, on the death of a king, the first-born son did not automatically ascend the throne and any of the king’s sons could lay claim to it. This, predictably, led to fierce battles within the family, and invariably, the most ruthless, shrewd and determined son became king. In this case, it was Aurangzib.

Good Mughal versus bad Mughal?

Dara and Aurangzib were the proverbial chalk and cheese, a veritable study in contrasts. Dara is portrayed as a sensitive soul, an intellectual, a dreamer, poet and author. An aspiring mystic, he became the disciple of two famous Sufi saints, Mian Mir and Mullah Shah. Like his great-grandfather, Emperor Akbar, he too was interested in the study of different religions, especially Hinduism. Both Akbar and he believed in the concept of pluralism and the syncretic nature of all religions.

Dara Shukoh attracted scholars, artists, theologians, mystics, magicians, and yes, tricksters too, all of whom flocked to the court. Chanda’s portrait of Dara is nuanced and impartial even though the tilt of the story is decidedly romantic. He is shown as being arrogant, disdainful and dismissive of the nobleman and courtiers. In important battles, he comes across as indecisive, vacillating, even incompetent. Being a poor judge of people, he quite often followed wrong counsel. Unable to form strategic alliances at the appropriate time cost him dear in the long-drawn war of succession. A prince more attracted to matters of the spirit rather than to that of the realm, he was sadly out of place in a world where a perpetual battle was the reality.

Battle between brothers

Aurangzib, in contrast, is shown to be very much a man of the world, an embittered, resentful son smouldering over his father’s obvious preference for Dara. In his father’s slights or dubious commands to him during battles, he sees Dara’s malicious hand. Bitterly opposed to Dara’s secular outlook, he considered him an infidel and loathed him. However, on the battlefield, Aurangzib is a shrewd accomplished military leader. Able to stitch up important alliances, sly enough to buy loyalty whenever necessary, single-minded in battle, he assiduously and mercilessly paves his way to the throne.

The battle scenes are recreated in an engrossing, detailed manner. Aurangzib’s final, relentless hunting down of Dara and the battles this entailed are superbly delineated.

The other important characters who lived during that period are also drawn with a deft and engaging touch. Jahanara Begum, Dara’s elder and favourite sister, comes across as an intelligent, kind woman, able to handle both matters of the court and the household. Interestingly, both she and her younger sister Raushanara (author’s spelling), were women who wielded considerable power and political influence in the court. Ironically again, Zebunissa, Aurangzib’s favourite daughter, declared herself a Sufi and spouted ideas similar to the brother he so hated.

Towards the end of the book, it is her poetry that reminds Aurangzib that his name would forever be linked to that of his brother. History, of course, remembers Aurangzib, the sixth Mughal Emperor, as an intolerant tyrant who ruled India with an iron fist; as the man who swiftly abandoned the legacy of pluralism and religious tolerance practised by Akbar and his elder brother.

In the epilogue, Chanda quotes a man saying of Dara: ‘To whom history has given refuge, what harm can an Alamgir cause?’ Tragically, Dara Shukoh’s vision for a just, tolerant, secular and humane India went unrealised — a vision that remains relevant to this day, in fact, more than ever before.

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