Thanks to Khaled Ahmed, we get to hear about new books on a variety of subjects. He has reviewed a new bookHindu Myth, Hindu History: Religion, Art, and Politics authored by the eminent Indologist, Heinrich von Stietencron.

Akbar’s eclecticism brought about a pluralist ambiance that history associates with his governance. He got Todar Mal from Gujarat to set up the revenue system of the kingdom. It was like England and the rest of the world taking Adam Smith from Scotland and making him the father of modern economics. It is Todar Mal that we owe variation in taxation on the basis of fluctuations in rainfall and nature of the soil which he achieved through resurvey of the land in India.

Akbar’s rule was a patch of effulgence in a general darkness on earth. Poets and artists gravitated to it; faiths rejected in other lands escaped to India to find tolerance. Today, Akbar is irrelevant to what is happening in the Islamic worldStietencron is no ordinary mortal. He represents the great German legacy of Indology, something most of us here in Pakistan may be unaware of. He has been professor of Indology and Comparative History of Religion (1973-1998) at the University of Tuebingen, and has won India’s Padma Shree Award in 2004 for his work on the Indian epics and the Puranas. His discussion of the concept of Kalyug, and survey of how the early Brahmins resented the going of Hinduism to the masses through temple and image worship, are simply new ground for us to break. But it is his essay Planned Syncretism: Emperor Akbar’s Religious Policy that alerts the mind with new insights.

Mughal king Emperor Jalaluddin Akbar (1556-1605) ruled when the Hijra millennium (alf) was ending and the Islamic world was waiting for the Mehdi with baited breath, and the air was filled with rumours of some kind of revival and correction. In India at least it received two gifts, one enriching but heretical in the shape of Akbar, and the other Sheikh Ahmad (d.1624) who grabbed the epithet of Majaddid Alf Sani (Renewer of the Second Millennium). Sheikh Ahmad simply railed against the pluralism of Akbar, returning the Muslims to a hardline backward looking Islam, renewing  nothing in a religion that needed correction. Muslims will forever have their idiosyncratic definition of the root of tajdeed which can mean modernisation but has been taken to mean revitalisation of the ancient faith, just as reform in Islam means going back to the original inspiration.

Looking for exemplars for its textbooks after 1947, Pakistan plumped for Sheikh Ahmad and rejected Akbar because he was not anti-Hindu. This was a non-intellectual but ideologically correct choice that Pakistan may live to regret as Sunni orthodoxy takes it down the slippery slope of state failure.

Akbar was syncretic because no religion standing alone inspired him. He wanted to rule over a multi-religious India and created an intellectual pluralism too early for his times. He had the genius of Abul Fazl serving him as his brains trust; he was opposed by trenchant critic in the Sunni orthodox person of historian Abdul Qadir Badayuni, a genius of almost equal stature. Akbar arranged debates and got all sorts of religious representatives (Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Hindus, Jains, Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis) to advocate and defend their faiths. When he died in 1605 no one knew what faith he had belonged to.

It is difficult to convince anyone in Pakistan about the wisdom of Akbar because of 60 years of anti-India textbook brainwash. In fact, one reason for the failure of General Musharraf’s idea of  enlightened moderation was the groove formed in the national psyche against Akbar as an unforgivable Muslim heretic with the help of such textbook exemplars as Sheikh Ahmad Mujaddid Alf Sani.

The faith of Akbar called Din-e-Ilahi did not develop into a religion. It was a royally founded syncretic order intended to embody the best of all religions. Akbar had reacted to all kinds of changes taking place among the Muslims on the coming of the new millennium in Islam, triggering massive collective illusions of the coming of the Mehdi. He put the Muslim ulema in front of the visiting Jesuits for debate and found the ulema lacking in knowledge, which led him to making Abul Fazl do a translation of the Bible.

Akbar rejected Trinity and refused to believe in miracles; nor did he agree with the Christian priests that he turn to monogamy. He grasped that Christians were involved in inter-sectarian violence and treated them with reservations. His contact with the Parsis had happier consequences because of the ancient Persian idea of the royal farr proclaimed by Firdowsi. (Ghalib explains farr in his famous letters.)

He took the sun into his Din because farr came from the sun. Akbar rejected polytheism of the Hindus but took their veneration of the sun which in itself was an Aryan memory. But he rejected Parsi dualism; he was too eclectic to accept any one faith. He took ahimsa from the Jains whom he engaged in debate at Fatehpur Sikri, learning from them that they were not atheists. In 1582, he made Delhi observe abstention from killing birds and animals during the Jain ritual of paryushana at the end of the rainy season. Through his minister Birbal he got to know all the branches of Hinduism, and visited Gokul to meet a saint there. He got the great Sanskrit texts translated, forcing even Badayuni to translate the Ramayana which Badayuni did with great revulsion.

From Hinduism, he took the doctrine of reincarnation and three worships daily after giving up the Muslim namaz and faced east towards the sun instead of west in the direction of Kaaba. (Many heretical mystics had also reduced the namaz.) Badayuni remarks that Akbar had become convinced that good things were contained in all religions and that there were good men and bad in all of them and why should truth be confined to one religion?

He also writes that Akbar had decided to change religion ten years before the onset of the Islamic millennium and had used his names Jalal and Akbar as a pointer to his divinity because they were also among the 99 names of Allah. He had ten tenets of faith which he recommended  like vegetarianism  but did not want to enforce them under duress.

The tenets were as follows: tolerance (Sufis, Hindus and Jains); vegetarianism (Jain, Hindu); renunciation of the world (Hindu); desire for others property removed (all); Avoid killing anything living (Jains); answer wrath with gentleness (Christianity); practise mediation in front of the sun (Hindu, Parsi). The virtues contained in the tenets like liberality, generosity, asceticism, altruism, and piety were all traced to Islam too.

Akbar’s eclecticism brought about a pluralist ambiance that history associates with his governance. He got Todar Mal from Gujarat to set up the revenue system of the kingdom. It was like England and the rest of the world taking Adam Smith from Scotland and making him the father of modern economics. It is Todar Mal that we owe variation in taxation on the basis of fluctuations in rainfall and nature of the soil which he achieved through resurvey of the land in India.

Akbar’s rule was a patch of effulgence in a general darkness on earth. Poets and artists gravitated to it; faiths rejected in other lands escaped to India to find tolerance. Today, Akbar is irrelevant to what is happening in the Islamic world.

Hindu Myth, Hindu History: Religion, Art, and Politics
by Heinrich von Stietencron
Permanent Black, Delhi 2005
Pp327 Price Rs 1390