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Mainstream Weekly, VOL LVI No 18 New Delhi April 21, 2018

Akbar — a Beacon for Contemporary India

Sunday 22 April 2018

by Ashok Celly

Akbar was not only a great king. He was also one of the greatest human beings Indian history has known. What made him great as a king was his awesome daring while he achieved greatness as a human being by the dint of his profound and pervasive empathy.

Look at the breath-taking audacity of this king. He gives the most important job in the kingdom—that of the Commander-in-Chief of the army—to a non-Muslim, a Hindu. It was an act of extraordinary courage. And I believe he never had to regret it. Raja Man Singh, the Commander-in-Chief, stood by him through thick and thin. One can imagine how this fabulous eassay in statesmanship must have endeared the Mughal emperor to the Rajputs in particular and the Hindus in general and laid the foundation of a mighty empire.

Is there a message for the present-day rulers of India in this? There could well be one, that is, if you trust the other community—the minorities in the present case—if you are willing to share power with them and assign them key jobs in the government, you are bound to be a gainer in the long run. But for that you need to discard your narrow vision and show courage and magnanimity. Leaders, who wax eloquent on international forum about ‘Vasudhev Kutumbkam’, must in the first place think of India as a family. And if India is a family, then aren’t Muslims and Christians part of this family?

To get back to Akbar the great. Aprt from the Hindu Commander-in-Chief, another key job that was assigned to a Hindu Raja was the Department of Revenue. Raja Todar Mal was an extremely important part of the Mughal administration. And last but not the least, Tansen, the musician, was the crowning glory of Akbar’s court.

That all this, making Hindus partners in governance, was not just a matter of political expediency but an expression of Akbar’s cosmopolitan vision—is established by Akbar’s keen interest in and respect for India’s diverse faiths—not just Hinduism but also Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity etc. Also, Akbar recognised and respected an individual’s right to follow any religion he wanted. “No man should be interfered with on account of religion and anyone is to be allowed to go over to a religion, that pleases him.” (Cited from Amartya Sen’s The Arguementative Indian) Along with Samrat Ashoka, Akbar can be legitimately credited with laying the foundations of a secular India.

Akbar’s life is of a piece. There are no contraditions between his public pronouncements and personal conduct. This is particularly remar-kable for an emperor—a political personality. Akbar’s childhood was spent in Afghanistan, but once he arrived in India, most probably in 1555, he began to take keen interest in the culture of this land. In the manner of native Indians, he grew long hair and didn’t grow a beard. He composed verses in Hindi. His fondness for Indian tales prompted him to commission the translation of Singhasan Battisi. Akbar’s keen interest in India’s cultural traditions and love of the land makes him a glorious heir of Amir Khusrau, the pitamah of India’s composite culture.

Probably the most strking thing about Akbar’s personality was his compassion for living beings. His incredible sensitivity and magnanimity is best revealed in the following observation: “I wish my body made of elements was big like that of an elephant so that these flesh-eating ignorant ones would have satisfied their hunger with my flesh and so spared other living beings.” (Cited from I. Alam Khan’s essay in Akbar and His India, edited by Irfan Habib)

Such colossal empathy one associates with the greatest of living saints. And truly there was something saint-like about Akbar and that makes him a kindred spirit of the great Buddha. This is not a hyperbolic statement or rhetorical flourish. In fact, Akbar’s observation is so strongly reminiscent of what Buddha said on a similar occasion. In his lecture on Buddha Vivekananda says: “He was the only one who was ever ready to give up his life for animals to stop a sacrifice. He once said to a king, ‘If the sacrifice of a lamb helps you to go to heaven, sacrificing a man will help you better, so sacrifice me.” (Vivekananda Reader, Comp. Dr M. Sivaramkrishna, Advait Ashram, Kolkata, p. 65)

In the light of all this recent attempts on the part of some saffron leaders to run down Akbar and exalt Maharana Pratap at his expense seem absolutely despicable. In fact, the very idea of pitting Akbar against Rana Pratap is a repugnant one. But this is characteristic of the Parivar’s approach—dualistic and divisive. How they enjoy pitting Nehru against Patel—vilifying one and glorifying another!

It is beyond the saffronist’s skewed imagination that one can admire both Rana Pratap and Akbar. I am a great admirer of Rana Pratap. The pride and dignity with which he stood up against the mighty Mughal emperor commands our admiration. Similarly, Akbar’s statesmanship, the pan-Indian vision and, above all, his empathy for living beings can serve as a beacon for leaders in both politics and religion, for he combines qualities of both Buddha and Ashoka.

The author retired as a Reader in English from Rajdhani College, University of Delhi. He is now a free-lancer.

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