Akbar (1542-1605) was the third Mughal Emperor who ruled over much of Northern and Central India. The family was Turko-Mongol in origin. Akbar, after ascending to the throne at the age of fourteen, cemented his power with successive victories over insubordinate local chieftains. He was a great patron of art and culture, somewhat analogous to Lorenzo the Magnificent of the House of Medici, who nourished the artistic community in Florence and turned the city into a locus of the Italian Renaissance. Akbar was known for his syncretic and liberal religious policy. Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and even Jesuits who had travelled all the way from Europe by sea to spread Christianity graced the royal court of Akbar. When he was thirty six years old, he had a mystical experience which seems to have been a turning point in his life.
In his biography of Akbar, Vincent Smith (1917) has synthesized the accounts of various historians of that era. The following account is from Smith’s book:
Early in May 1578, when Akbar was encamped at Bhera (Bihrah, Bahirah) on the Jhelum in the Panjab, an extraordinary event in his personal history took place, which has been so imperfectly described that it is impossible to make out exactly what happened. Late in April he had arranged for a huge battue, or Kamargha hunt, in the course of which the game within a circumference of about forty or fifty miles (25 kos) were to be ringed in by a multitude of beaters and driven to the slaughter. The complicated arrangements necessary had been in operation for some ten days when they were suddenly countermanded and the hunt was stopped.
“Active men”, Abu-l Fazl tells us, “made every endeavour that no one should touch the feather of a finch and that they should allow all the animals to depart according to their habits.” The same writer, who obscures the facts with a cloud of rhetoric, hints that Akbar was on the point of abdication. We are informed that “he was nearly abandoning this state of struggle, and entirely gathering up the skirt of his genius from earthly pomp”. He was supposed to have attained a state of ecstasy and to have communed with God face to face. “A sublime joy took possession of his bodily frame. The attraction (jazaba) of cognition of God cast its ray.” Those phrases fail to present a clear picture. The author of the Tabakat states that the vision came upon Akbar while he was under a tree, the position of which he ordered to be commemorated by the erection of a house and garden on the spot.
Badaoni is slightly more explicit. He says:
“And when it had almost come about that the two sides of the Kamargha were come together, suddenly all at once a strange state and strong frenzy came upon the Emperor, and an extraordinary change was manifested in his manner, to such an extent as cannot be accounted for. And every one attributed it to some cause or other; but God alone knoweth secrets. And at that time he ordered the hunting to be abandoned:
“Take care! for the grace of God comes suddenly,
It comes suddenly, it comes to the mind of the wise.”
And at the foot of a tree which was then in fruit he distributed much gold to the fakirs and poor, and laid the foundation of a lofty building and an extensive garden in that place. And he cut off the hair of his head, and most of his courtiers followed his example. And when news of this spread abroad in the Eastern part of India, strange rumours and wonderful lies became current in the mouths of the common people, and so insurrections took place among the ryots [peasantry], but these were quickly quelled.
While he was at Bihrah (Bhera), the imperial Begam [Akbar’s mother] arrived from the capital. Her purpose, presumably, was to watch over her son’s health.
Abu-l Fazl adds that about this time the primacy of the spiritual world took possession of his holy form, and gave a new aspect to his world-adorning beauty…. What the chiefs of purity and deliverance [meaning apparently “Sufi seers”] had searched for in vain was revealed to him. The spectators who were in his holy neighbourhood carried away the fragments of the Divine bounty.
Akbar soon returned to the earth. In a short space of time he by God-given strength turned his face to the outer world and attended to indispensable matters.
He gave vent to his religious emotion by the fantastic freak of filling the Anup Talao tank in the palace at Fatehpur-Sikri with a vast mass of coin, exceeding, it is said, ten millions of rupees in value, which he subsequently distributed.
That is all we know about the mysterious occurrence. The information is tantalizing in its meagreness, but probably Akbar never gave any fully intelligible account of the spiritual storm which swept through him as he sat or lay under the tree. Perhaps he slept and had a dream, or, as seems to be more likely, he may have had an epileptic fit.
No man can tell exactly what happened. The incident was not altogether singular. Somewhat similar tempests of feeling had broken over Akbar’s soul before. Abu-l Fazl narrates at immense length a strange story of his behaviour one day in 1557, when he was in his fifteenth year.
The boy, we are told, felt constrained by the presence of shortsighted men (psychologically rather than optically shortsighted), and began to chafe. He mounted a specially vicious Iraki horse named Hairan, and rode off, leaving orders that nobody, not even a groom, should follow him. He dismounted, and was supposed to have assumed the posture of communing with his God. Whatever posture he may have assumed the horse galloped away, but luckily it came back of its own accord and allowed its master to mount. There may not be much in that anecdote, but Akbar’s own account, already quoted, of the exceeding sorrow with which his soul was seized at the completion of his twentieth year, seems to have been a foretaste of the experience which he underwent in his thirty-sixth year (1578), when, like Dante, he was “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (in the middle of life’s path), and, like the poet, saw a vision, beholding things that cannot be uttered.
Akbar was by nature a mystic, who sought earnestly, like his Sufi friends, to attain the ineffable bliss of direct contact with the Divine Reality, and now and again believed or fancied that he had succeeded. His temperament was profoundly melancholic, and there seems to be some reason to suspect that at times he was not far from the danger of falling into a state of religious mania. His ambition and intense interest in all the manifold affairs of this world saved him from that fate, and brought him back from dreams to the actualities of human life. He was not an ordinary man, and his complex nature, like that of St. Paul, Muhammad, Dante, and other great men with a tendency to mysticism, presents perplexing problems .
A recent biographer, Abraham Eraly (2003), remarks that there was a strain of madness in his mother’s family, and that Christian missionaries at the time had claimed that Akbar could have been an epileptic just like his son Murad. Madness seems inconsistent with the subsequent change in lifestyle that Akbar initiated, as we can discern from these brief excerpts from Eraly’s book:
The incident at Bhera however had a lasting effect on Akbar. He himself considered it as a turning point in his life. When he recovered, he tonsured his head as an expiatory act, distributed alms to fakirs and the poor, and to mark the spot where the eerie change had come over him, laid out a garden there and erected a memorial building. And when he returned to Fatehpur Sikri, he filled the Anup Talao (Peerless Pool) in the courtyard of his palace with “red and white and black coins (gold, silver and copper coins), the whole of which he gave away to the amirs, the poor, the holy, and the learned,” says Nizamuddin. “The total of this money amounted to twenty crores of tankas (ten million rupees), and the distribution of it lasted for three years.”
Shortly after the hunting incident, Akbar threw open the discussions in the Ibadat Khana (house of worship in Fatehpur Sikri) to all faiths. Apart from various Muslim sects, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Zoroastrians and Christians were invited to the assembly; even an obscure Semitic sect called Sabians were there, as were Charvakas, an ancient and nearly extinct school of Indian materialists. Akbar “associated with the good of every race and creed and persuasion, and was gracious to all in accordance with their condition and understanding,” says Jahangir (his son). “We associate at convenient seasons with learned men of all religions and thus derive profit from their exquisite discourses and exalted aspirations,” stated Akbar in a letter addressed to Philip II of Spain.
Coinciding with these changes in the religious attitudes of Akbar, certain changes took place in his lifestyle too. His habits grew austere and he became a near-vegetarian.
Akbar then turned from public debates to private discussions to continue his philosophic explorations, and in this exercise favoured Indian sages. Writes Badauni, “Samanas (Buddhist or Jain ascetics) and Brahmans, as far as the matter of private interviews is concerned, gained the advantage over every one in attaining the honour of interviews with His Majesty, and in associating with him … [A brahmin named Debi used to be] pulled up the wall of the castle sitting on a charpai (rope cot) till he arrived near a balcony, which the Emperor had made his bed chamber. Whilst thus suspended he instructed His Majesty in the secrets and legends of Hinduism, in the manner of worshipping idols, the fire/the sun and stars, and revering the chief gods of these unbelievers … He became especially firmly convinced of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls.” Around this time Akbar ordered Hindu religious texts like the Vedas and the epics to be translated into Persian-the translation of the Mahabharata was entrusted to Badauni, to his utter disgust.
In addition to the orthodox preceptors of Hinduism, Akbar sought out and visited Hindu mystics, like Chid Rup, a Vaishnava anchorite who lived in a tiny cave near Ujjain. Akbar also summoned yogis to him, says Badauni, “and gave them at night private interviews, and inquired into abstract truths; their articles of faith; their occupation; the influence on 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.” 
Akbar got so close to Hinduism that, according to his contemporary Badauni, the bards even began extolling him as an incarnation of Rama and Vishnu. Akbar, however, remained close to the Sufi sage Sheik Tajuddin. The Parsee (Zoroastrian) priest, Mahyarji Rana, was invited to the palace and asked to set up a fire worship altar. Ultimately, Akbar would formulate the Din-i-Elahi, a syncretic religious doctrine that merged the best elements of all religions that he had examined. Din-i-Ilahi was more of an ethical system. It prohibits lust, sensuality, slander and pride, considering them sins. Piety, prudence, abstinence and kindness are the core virtues. The soul is encouraged to purify itself through yearning of God. Celibacy is respected and the slaughter of animals is forbidden. There are neither sacred scriptures nor a priestly hierarchy in this religion .
- Vincent Smith. Akbar the Great Mogul, 1542-1605, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1919. (online)
- Abraham Eraly. The Mughal throne: the saga of India’s great emperors. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, pp. 183-209. (amazon)
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