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


Indians continue to engage with the Mughal Empire in a way they don’t with any other dynasty. In times of communal tensions, Muslims are derogatorily called “the sons of Babur” after the founder of the Mughal dynasty in the 16th century. Aurangzeb, the last of the great Mughals, also continues to haunt contemporary debates about the origins of Hindu-Muslim conflicts in India. He is often contrasted with a brother he eliminated in order to become the Emperor himself. Against the fundamentalism that Aurangzeb is associated with, Dara Shukoh stands a possible hero who could have turned the course of the history of the subcontinent. Certain voices on the Indian right speculate that had Dara Shukoh succeeded Shah Jahan, Hindus and Muslims could have continued to live peacefully on the subcontinent, and Pakistan would never have come into existence.

This attribution of greatness and peace to a single individual deserves a closer, more systematic historical look. In her book The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India, historian Supriya Gandhi writes a well-researched biography of the heir-apparent, showing how unrealistic it is to burden a historical figure with present-day guesswork.


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 was the eldest and most favored son of Emperor Shah Jahan. He is revered for his universalism, as is reflected in the legacy he has left behind: the books he wrote on Sufi mysticism and the translation projects of Sanskrit scriptures he oversaw.

Gandhi begins Dara’s biography by looking at how his father and grandfather acted in the capacity of sovereigns. She shows that it was Shah Jahan who introduced Dara to Miyan Mir, a Qadiri Sufi mystic, who came to influence Dara’s spiritual quests. Dara also became a disciple of one of Mir’s disciples, Mulla Shah. Gandhi also discusses how Dara’s interest in Sufism can be seen as shared by his father and his older sister Jahanara as well, a point which helps Gandhi establish that Dara was not alone among the Mughals to take interest in worlds other than the material one. The difference is that he engaged a lot more closely with the spiritual aspects of life and went on to write books such as Safinat-ul-auliya (The Ship of Saints), Sakinat-ul-auliya (The Tranquility 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.

His interest in Sufism aside, Dara oversaw many translations of texts from Sanskrit to Persian, the first of which was the translation of Yogavasishtha, a conversation between Lord Rama and his teacher Vasishtha. It was a significant project in that it marks a shift in Dara’s interests from Islam to other faiths, especially Hinduism. And yet, Gandhi argues, the project itself was not an exceptional because Dara’s great-grandfather Emperor Akbar too had commissioned a translation of an abridged version of the same text before:


By translating the Laghu Yogavasishtha, Dara Shukoh claimed the text for himself. Its argument that a prince could achieve full self-realization as an ascetic while acting as an exemplary ruler spoke directly to his own situation. It also continued a link to previous imperial engagements with the text by Jahangir and Akbar … Translation in the Mughal context had often been a way of asserting imperial authority. To translate a text that had been in India far longer than one’s celebrated ancestors was to sprout deeper roots in the subcontinent soil. It was also a way to mold this earth in new ways.


Dara Shukoh wrote Majma-ul-bahrayn (The Meeting Place of the Two Seas), a book about the similarities between Islam and the monotheistic streak of Hinduism. He also had the Upanishads translated because he believed that the Upanishads held the secret referred to in the Quran as well; the Persian text is called Sirr-i akbar (The Greatest Secret).


It is generally assumed that Aurangzeb used Dara’s interest in faiths other than Islam to bring the clerics to his own side and persecute him. Gandhi’s perspective is that it was common for all the Mughal Emperors to border on what Aurangzeb called “bigotry” in Dara Shukoh. If Dara wore a ring that had the words “Allah” and “Prabhu” (one of the words for God in Hinduism), Emperor Akbar commissioned  rings that had the words “Allahu Akbar” (meaning God is Great and/or Akbar is God) inscribed on them (which he then distributed among his select disciples. If Dara was in dialogue with the Baba Lal, a Hindu ascetic, Akbar and his son Emperor Jahangir too visited Hindu ascetics like Chidrup. Shah Jahan patronized Kavindracharya Saraswati, a scholar and poet from Benaras. Thus, Aurangzeb’s allegations of kufr (unbelief) against Dara were likely an afterthought. What had bothered him was the way Dara kept thwarting his own ambitions. The picture that emerges from Gandhi’s book is that it was politics as usual: religion is an angle that was mostly brought in much later by the colonial historians and later Indian scholars who depended a lot on Dara’s Persian translations for their own Indological projects.

Aurangzeb did systematically erase Dara’s name from official chronicles to the effect that Dara’s burial place remains unknown. But he also did many things that do not sit well with the belief that he was a zealot. For instance, he ensured that his children married Dara’s.

Although Aurangzeb appears only in the last chapter, apart from a few childhood snapshots earlier in the third chapter or so, the biography nonetheless manages to make its point in the last words:


If Dara had come to power, he too would have had to reproduce the very fratricidal violence that had brought his father to the throne. Aurangzeb would not necessarily have been turned into an unbeliever. He would, though, have become the rebel prince, who excited sedition and deserved to have his worldly existence effaced.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.