“The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India” by Supriya Gandhi

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It was 1675, and Londoners were eager to see the King’s Company production of the latest play by John Dryden, playwright and Poet Laureate. Aureng-Zebe, for so it was titled, was a heroic verse-drama written in rhyming couplets based on near-contemporary events in India. It featured an exotic combination of eastern despotism, lust and dynastic rivalry, together with an invented love-story, all of which was bound to satisfy an audience still in the throes of an “oriental” craze.

Dryden seems to have taken his inspiration largely from François Bernier’s Travels in the Mughal Empire, 1656-1668, although he took extensive liberties with both Bernier’s account and with actual history itself. Bernier had, according to some accounts, very briefly served as personal doctor to Prince Dara Shukoh, the tragic elder brother of Aurangzeb (the future emperor Alamgir), and this, together with his extended sojourn at the Mughal court, made him an ideal source for Dryden’s very successful play. Poetic license and cultural stereotyping did the rest.

In The Emperor Who Never Was, Supriya Gandhi cites Bernier’s characterization of Dara Shukoh as the beginning of negative portrayal of the prince. She says that Bernier only met him once, writing that he “was not deficient in good qualities”, but at the same time “had a high opinion of himself” and was “irritable”.

 

The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India, Supriya Gandhi (Harvard University Press, January 2020)
The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India, Supriya Gandhi (Harvard University Press, January 2020)

Dara Shukoh (1615-1659), the subject of Supriya Gandhi’s thoroughly-researched and vividly-written book, doesn’t actually appear in Dryden’s play, although he is present in the background and is mentioned as taking part in the power-struggle between Shah Jahan and his four sons. “Dara, the eldest, bears a generous mind,” says the courtier Fazel in Act I, “But to implacable revenge inclin’d.” Dara’s three brothers, all of whom would play significant parts in his life, are also described: Shuja, characterized by Gandhi as a “patron and aesthete”, is for Dryden “a bigot of the Persian sect”. Murad, whom Gandhi states “fostered a vibrant literary culture in his court”, is “insolent, too much a brave”. Aurangzeb, on the other hand, is “by no strong passion sway’d, / Except his love more temperate is, and weighed.” All four of them, of course, are being egged on “by curs’d cabals of women”.

Dryden has decided, then, that Aurangzeb is going to be the hero, as he refuses to surrender the fictional) captive queen Indamora, to the lust of his father and eventually overcomes both his evil brothers and the “cabals of women”. Dryden’s decision to make Aurangzeb the hero rather than Dara perfectly fits what Supriya Gandhi believes was Aurangzeb’s intention “to stain his brother’s image for posterity”, an action which colored perception of Dara Shukoh in the eyes of foreigners and natives for years after Dara’s execution by his brother’s orders.

 

However, the real story of Dara Shukoh is much more interesting and varied than either Bernier of Dryden could have known, but the subsequent view of historians and others of the prince as some mythical Sufi mystic and poet as well as a kind of religious synthesizer or political “liberal” is shown to be almost as fictional as Dryden’s vengeful figure. Furthermore, it’s often Aurangzeb himself, not Murad, who is now characterized as “a bigot of the Persian sect”, and, as Gandhi tells us, had Dara in fact become emperor, would have been the one to rebel and have his reputation ruined by posterity.

As for the “cabals of women”, it would appear from Gandhi’s work that Mughal women were indeed influential, but, as in the case of Dara’s aunt, the scholarly but strong-minded Princess Jahanara (1614-1681), far more of a positive than negative influence: she did her best to keep the peace in the family. Gandhi spends a considerable amount of time on the role of Mughal women, which gives readers a new and fresher perspective on just how important they were, both personally and politically, and helps balance the account. Dryden’s contemptuous dismissal of Mughal women as simply a “cabal”, implying secrecy and malevolent plotting behind the scenes, doesn’t hold much water in the end, based as it was on contemporary Western stereotypes of both women in general and “oriental” women in particular. It did, however, make for good drama.

To balance the portrait of Dara himself which often prevailed, Gandhi reminds us that in spite of the efforts of Aurangzeb and numerous travel-writers or chroniclers, “the archive holds no dearth of sympathetic and affectionate portrayals” of Dara Shukoh, and some even attacked Aurangzeb for hypocrisy as he set himself up to play the virtuous philosopher-king. Many of these accounts remained unpublished or at least languishing in archive collections; Supriya Gandhi has done a great deal of delving into primary sources to make up this finely-balanced presentation of a controversial figure.

To this end, much of Gandhi’s book deals with the spiritual side of Dara Shukoh, setting it apart from run-of-the-mill royal biographies, and which for many readers may prove even more interesting than the known political history. Dara’s reputation as a “philosopher prince” or “Sufi poet-prince” whose beliefs were in part to blame for his tragic death, arose quite soon after his death, and he was elevated into a kind of religious martyr or at least a man who died because his beliefs and dreams did not conform to those usually expected of Mughal princes.

As for politics, Dara was the loser in the war of succession (there was no necessary primogeniture in Mughal royal families) which followed the confinement of Shah Jahan by Aurangzeb in 1658, leading subsequent historians to wonder, given his intellectual predilections, what kind of an emperor he would have been had roles been reversed. Supriya Gandhi concludes that “We do not need to speculate, because in his father’s court [Dara] was already a ruler.” She argues, furthermore, that in spite of his patronage of scholars and his own philosophical bent, he “would have had to reproduce the very fratricidal violence which had brought his father to the throne.” In other words, we know exactly what kind of emperor Dara Shukoh would have been. A devotion to religion or the arts, commendable as it might be, does not make a prince immune to politics or war, as an earlier philosopher-emperor, Marcus Aurelius, soon found out.

 

What makes the story of Dara Shukoh prominent in the story of royal intellectuals is that he was was a philosopher, theologian, builder, visionary, poet and compiler of scholarly reference works, many of which have found their place in the history of Mughal culture. As a Muslim, he was seriously interested in Sufism and other branches of his faith, sitting at the feet of Sufi masters and calling himself a disciple of more than one of them.

However, like his father Shah Jahan, grandfather Jahangir and great-grandfather Akbar, Dara extended his interest into the other religions of the Mughal Empire, particularly Hinduism and the meaning of the Upanishads, which, as Gandhi tells us, “he thought to be a fount of truth.” Dara’s book, the Sirr-i akbar, Gandhi tells us, “introduced Europe to the Upanishads”, through its translation into French by Abraham Anquetil-Duperron in 1801. His main theological work, the Majma ul-Bahrain or Confluence of the Two Seas (1654-55) was essentially a syncretic work comparing Islam and Hinduism, its title indicating Dara’s belief that truth could be found in both systems. He may also have been involved with a Persian translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, although Gandhi is not prepared to claim that he actually made the translation himself.

His works were read and studied by both Muslims and Hindus, “and left a pervading influence on the idiom of various Persian writings on mysticism and Hindu religious topics.” Both sides of this remarkable man are presented fully in Supriya Gandhi’s book, during the course of which she not only manages to place her subject in his intellectual and historical context, but to tell a good story with verve and cutting through the historiographical jungle, leaving us with a three-dimensional impression of a real person. Dara comes across as a man of feelings, human frailty and keen intelligence, very far from Dryden’s “implacable” and vengeful figure as well as from other exaggerated portrayals by historians and hagiographers of the man and his role.

 

The illustrations in this book, however, really should have been reproduced in color (the cover features a portrait of Dara in color, to be fair), as grainy black-and-white illustrations do not convey either the artist’s skill or the intended atmosphere of the paintings. For example, a painting captioned as “Mughal prince converses with Hindu ascetic and other holy men” is described by Gandhi as “particularly evocative … located in a verdant blooming garden on a terraced platform.” There is a “saffron-robed ascetic” in a prominent position, centre-right. The prince, perhaps Dara Shukoh, sports a “golden sash and turban”, which “lend him a glow”. None of this can be seen in a black-and-white reproduction.

Apart from this one cavil, there is everything to recommend this book—it’s interesting, accessible, beautifully-written and immensely informative, and certainly does justice to a very significant figure in Mughal history, a man both unjustly-maligned and needlessly-elevated to a mythical, one dimensional symbol, the man who called himself “Muhammad Dara Shukoh, the faqir without a care.”


John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.