The intellectual prince

September 27, 2020

Life and times of the great Dara Shikoh

Dara Shikoh remains a subject of fascination for historians and scholars alike who have studied the credentials and merits of this Mughal prince who was Emperor Shah Jahan’s favourite son and next in line to the throne of Hindustan. The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shikoh in Mughal India covers the life of Dara Shikoh, especially his religious inclinations and relationship with sufism throughout his life and the close bonding he developed with his older sister Jahanara who shared his brother’s inclination towards mysticism.

The initial chapters provide a background to the circumstances of Dara’s childhood and his father Shah Jahan’s struggles with Emperor Jahangir and the tense relationship that he shared with him. The first seventy-odd pages are dedicated to the succession struggle of Shah Jahan and how he inherited the throne, the impact it had on Dara’s childhood and how he was kept away from his family along with his siblings for long durations of time.

The author steers away from the debate from the central character of her book and focuses on covering how Dara Shikoh’s father and grandfather had reigned. Considering the book is about Dara and not about his famed father Shah Jahan, it loses its direction in the initial chapters and diverts from the subject before delving into it much later.

Also, Dara’s interest in sufism and the mysticism associated with it are a well-known fact and the book, unfortunately, reveals nothing new. As the chapters unfold, Dara’s leanings towards sufism and his appetite to learn and increase his knowledge form the central theme of this book. In this quest, he was not alone as his elder sister Jahanara also took great interest in sufism. The prince’s close relationship with Mian Mir who had profound influence on him led him to become one of his disciples. He regularly visited Mian Mir. After his demise, during Shah Jahan’s reign, he built a great monument in his honour in Lahore which is thronged by disciples and followers to this day.

Supriya Gandhi write about the various translation projects that Dara undertook and which consumed a lot of his time and energies. The prince’s voracious appetite for learning and knowledge about sufi mysticism is undoubted since he took a major interest in its spiritual aspects as well. Consequently, this resulted in him writing several books on the subject namely Safinat-ul-Auliya (The Ship of Saints), Sakinat-ul-Auliya (The Tranquillity of Saints), Risala-i-Haqqnuma (The Truth-Directing Treatise), and Hasanat-ul-Arifin (Fine Words of the Gnostics), a compilation of exotic sayings by notable sufis.

Dara did not stop there. His interest in other faiths of the subcontinent including Hinduism led him to oversee several translations of texts from Sanskrit to Persian, amongst which was Yogavasishtha, a conversation between Lord Rama and his teacher Vasishtha.

According to Gandhi courtly intrigues, the favouritism that was allegedly shown to Dara Shikoh by Shah Jahan, the accolades he received, and his lack of experience for not having administered the vast realm his father ruled were causes of friction amongst him and his younger brothers especially Aurangzeb. The emperor preferred to keep Dara Shikoh close to him in Agra and the benefices he was accorded with cemented his status as the preferred and chosen successor of his father. Dara’s leaning towards esoteric knowledge and sufi spiritualism prevented him from gaining much needed administrative and campaigning experience of war which he was able to avoid courtesy of his father. Although, the prince did lead a campaign to suppress the revolt in Kandahar, modern-day Afghanistan, it was a catastrophic failure akin to what his brother Aurangzeb had endured earlier.

The prince’s intellectual leanings set him apart alongside his sister Jahanara with whom, as mentioned earlier, he shared similar interests. But he remained ill-equipped to be successful in the fratricidal war that took place after Aurangzeb took Agra in connivance with his other brothers and imprisoned his father, the emperor Shah Jahan and declared himself emperor in his place. Earlier in his life, Dara Shikoh had spent a considerable amount of time in Lahore in his scholarly pursuits of sufism and other aspects of his works. This led him to fall in love with the city, as the author states.

Despite having considerable support, Dara Shikoh was not a warmonger and his dearth of experience in the battlefield during the wars with Aurangzeb and his other brothers deprived him of the throne. The debate continues as to how things might have turned out if Dara Shikoh had triumphed in the war and had ascended to the throne of Hindustan as emperor. The translation projects that he undertook included the Majma-ul-Bahrayn (The Meeting Place of the Two Seas), a book about the similarities between Islam and the monotheistic streak in Hinduism.

The Emperor Who Never Was is about Dara Shikoh’s achievements but unlike Ira Mukhoty’s book about his great grandfather, the great Mughal Emperor Akbar, it fails to provide a vast coverage about Dara’s life. However, those who have not read about the great intellectual Mughal prince at all and want to know about him would be strongly advised to read Supriya Gandhi’s offering.

The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shikoh in Mughal India

Author: Supriya Gandhi

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Pages: 340

Price: $25.76 (Kindle)

The writer is a freelance journalist. He tweets @MohammadFarooq

The intellectual prince