In Search of Monotheism: Rethinking Dārā Shikūh as an Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity

Portrait of Dara Shukoh’s head Brought to Aurangzeb. Niccoló Manucci, Historie de l’Inde, also
known as the Libro Rosso, late seventeenth century painting in the Deccani Style. Bibliothéque Nationale de France, Paris, Estampes, Res., Codex Od. 45, no. 14, pet. Fol., fol. 31 a. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Introduction: The ‘Myth of Dārā’ is Born

The day is August 29, 1659. A judge takes his seat in the diwan-i-khas at the Lal Qila in Delhi. The scene is intense, as the eldest (and favourite) son of the Mughal emperor Shāh Jahān is being tried for apostasy. This is only days after his younger brother Aurangzeb crowned himself the new Emperor ‘Alamgīr’ of the Empire. S. Gandhi, in her book, The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India gives a vivid narrative of the court scene:

The prosecutor charged: “So you believe, frankly, Prince [Dārā Shikūh], that the Hindu faith is as valid as the Muslim faith? Who cares which door you open to come into the light? Dārā eloquently replied. The prosecutor ordered Dārā to present his ring, “the evidence”, which sealed the case: for it was engraved with “Allāh” on one side and “Prabhu” [A Sanskrit-Hindu epithet for God] on the other. The prosecutor snapped: “Prince Dārā, it is clear that you strayed, long, long ago from the pure path of Islam…”[i]

A day later the prince was put to death.

A near contemporary account, the Alamgirnamah, a court-sponsored account written during Alamgīr’s reign, in an attempt to justify the execution notes:

“Dara Shukoh in his later years did not restrict himself to free thinking and heretical notions, which he had adopted in the name of Sufism, but showed an inclination for the religion of the Hindus…. It became clear if he should obtain the throne…the foundations of the Islamic faith would be in danger…”[ii]

Commenting on Dārā’s death, one twentieth-century account goes as far as saying: “It was the partition before partition… Dārā Shikūh was killed on an August night 350 years ago, and with him died hopes of a Hindu-Muslim unity.” [iii]

Whilst claims like these are unlikely to be true, what is interesting is how statements like these came into being. Scholars call this ‘the Myth of Dārā’— casting Dārā, the slain brother as ‘a Good Muslim‘, ‘an apostle of unity’ and his slayer, Aurangzeb, as a ‘destroyer of unity’, ‘a bad Muslim’. However, per my observation, Dārā was more likely a greater apostle for finding the ‘Divine Unity of God (tawḥīd) than the ‘unity of two communities’—thus, in a way, our vision of viewing Dārā as a harbinger of Hindu-Muslim unity is more likely a by-product of his literary activities.

Page from the Late Shah Jahan Album: Prince and Ascetics, c. 1630. Attributed to Govardhan (Indian, active c.1596–1645). Gum tempera, ink, and gold on paper; The Cleveland Museum of Art, Andrew R. and Martha Holden Jennings Fund 1971, 7.

Understanding Dārā’s Theological Quests

By no means was Dārā Shikūh the first Muslim intellectual to draw linkages between Islam and Hinduism. Nearly 500 years before Dārā, Al-Bīrūnī, the Ghaznavid scholar had argued that Hinduism was ‘not unlike’ the Abrahamic religions. Al-Jīlī, a fourteenth-century Sufi saint, succinctly said, “Barāhima (Hindu) belong to the religion of Abraham and seek to realise tawḥīd too… It is no coincidence that Barāhima sounded like Abraham.”[iv] 

Thus, by the sixteenth century, Muslim intellectual circles were familiar with the theory that the core beliefs of Hinduism resonated with Islam. 

Closer home, in the Mughal household, Dārā’s great grandfather, Akbar, had the kitābat-khāna (library)setup to translate texts from Sanskrit to Persian for understanding, in addition to the inter-religious debates he periodically convened at the Ibadat-khāna.

By the 1640s-1650s, Dārā, a disciple of Qadiri saints Miyan Mir and Mullah Shāh had become increasingly convinced that Vedantic Hinduism and Islam were distinct in name only. Thus in his works, Sākinat al-Awliyā’  (1642), Tariqat al-haqiqat (1648-49) and Majma‘ al-Bahrayn (1655-56),  Dārā echoed words that had been said nearly 600 years ago, when he wrote that: “like the Hindu Gods, Prophet Muhammad did not cast a shadow and that no fly could sit on him.” [v]

In the introduction of his last literary work titled Sirr-i Akbar (‘The Great Secret’, 1657),  a compilation of the sacred Hindu text, the Upaniṣads, a frenzied Dārā Shikūh, obsessed with the idea of tawḥīd (oneness of God) proclaimed that he had discovered the textual source of monotheism, and it was not the Qur’ān. The said ‘introduction’ became the basis for the trial described in the beginning.

In the introduction, Dārā elaborately explains how in his state of doubt, he set out on a pursuit to find the secrets of God’s oneness, turning first to the Qur’ān, which he found had “many subtleties/enigmas” (marmuz) and then to other monotheistic texts like the Old and New Testaments.

What led Dārā to the Upaniṣads (c.800 BCE), a text of a community/people accepted to be polytheists, was his observation that monotheism was widely discussed in India and that the “old school of Hinduism” never objected to the idea of the “oneness of God”. Curious, Dārā had the texts translated to Persian by a large gathering of Sanskrit scholars summoned from Benares. This was somewhere around the end of 1656. [vi]

What Dārā discovered on reading the ‘heavenly books’ (kutb-i asmani) of this “ancient nation” (qaum-i qadim) startled him: the Vedas were revealed to the Hindus by their ‘greatest prophet’—Brahma, who, Dārā asserted, was none other than Prophet Abraham.[vii] Calling this a ‘great plot’ spanning centuries, Dārā Shikūh argued that the Upaniṣads were intentionally concealed from the Muslims. Thus, for the prince, the Upaniṣads were not only the first heavenly books, the source of ‘divine oneness’, but more crucially a commentary for the Qur’ān.

As Munis Faruqui notes in his article, “Dara Shukoh, Vedanta and the Imperial Succession in Mughal India”:  “With this judgement — one that raises serious doubts about the Qur’ān’s perfection and Islam’s self-sufficiency about all preceding religions — Dārā Shikūh conclusively overstepped the bounds of accepted Islamic dogma.”[viii]

Anticipating attacks of apostasy, Dārā presented a two-fold defence in the introduction to show how the Upaniṣads indeed were the source of Monotheism. He began by attacking the ulema (Muslim theologians) by calling them ‘jahil’ (ignorant). By using this term which is historically and religiously used for the pre-Islamic Arabs, Dārā strove to strip the ulema of their social legitimacy, rendering them ignoble to question his claims.

Next, Dārā turned to the Qur’ān and cited three chapters: the Surāh al-Fatir, the Surāh al-Isra and most crucially, the Surāh Al-Waqi’ah (which references a “hidden book”/ kitāb al-maknun that has already been revealed by God but inaccessible to mankind). Overriding the common claim that this “hidden book” mentioned is the older monotheistic text the Psalms, Dārā argued that the reference was to the Upaniṣads as its essence was to conceal secrets— as might be expected of a “hidden book”.[ix]

Further, Dārā claimed (albeit without proof) that the ayats (verses) in the Qur’ān are found in the Upaniṣad. Finally, Dārā confirmed the divinity of Upaniṣads by declaring that he experienced ‘enlightenment’ through reading it: “Unknown things became known and incomprehensible became comprehensible to this devotee [ie Dārā Shikūh]. After all, the words of God are their commentary.”[x] The prince called this ‘his service to Islam’ because he believed that his work had enabled Muslims to witness humanity’s first claim to ‘tawḥīd’.

The ulema, upon publication of this book, were far from happy. Most Muslims outrightly rejected his claims. However, this rejection was not due to doubts about the idea of ‘tawḥīd’ contained in the ‘Hindu texts’ but more so due to Dārā’s lack of qualification to analyse the holiest Islamic text, the Qur’ān. Ultimately, commentary on the Qur’ān requires years of training, and proficiency in Qur’ānic exegesis (tafsīr) — Dārā lacked those skills. Even the years he spent under Mullah Shāh counted for little as the saint himself was widely contested in the Qadiri Sufi order.

Prince Dara Shikoh visiting Mian Mir, by Chitarman, opaque watercolour and gold on paper, Mughal, 17th century; The Victoria and Albert Museum. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

What convinced Dārā to undertake this translation is unclear. However, it certainly was not “to learn something from the Hindu text” as is commonly believed. Ganeri also emphasises the same, “As a devout Muslim and an adept Sufi practitioner, he [Dārā] was already firm about the true nature of things. He had no expectation of learning something fundamentally new from the Upaniṣads and the other Hindu texts, nor indeed any real openness to the possibility of doing so…”[xi]

 Barua adds, “His [Dārā’s] primary motivation could have been deeply Islamic – namely, looking for signs of Allāh’s presence in all forms of human wisdom. Even if he did become emperor and offered patronage to some local Hindus to build temples, his primary motivation could still have been deeply Islamic.” [xii]

Conclusion: Dismantling the ‘Myth of Dārā’ — What is his Real Legacy?

Even though, Dārā’s ideas largely died with him, his translation of the Upaniṣads was picked up, nearly a century and a half later by the French linguist and scholar, Anquetil-Duperronthe (1731-1805). Duperronthe published a two-volume translation of the Upaniṣads in Latin and French under the title Oupnek’hat — a slightly corrupt version of the word Upaniṣad. When the Oupnek’hat appeared — the first European language translation of ‘a Hindu text’ in 1801-02 CE, it caused a sensation. 

In the article, “Anquetil-Duperron: French scholar who took Upanishads to Europe”, Goswamy writes:

“What followed is history, so to speak, and the number of scholars, worldwide, who read and held them in reverence — Thoreau, Emerson, Walt Whitman, Max Mueller, among them — is legion. Schopenhauer’s words keep ringing: “The Upaniṣads have been the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death,” he wrote. “Ex Oriente Lux: The Light coming from the East.”[xiii]

Since a sacred ‘Hindu text’’ had come to light due to the efforts of a “Muslim prince’’ and the said person paid the price for bringing the ‘Hindu- Muslim communities’ together with his life, the myth of Dārā gained currency. Dara became the “eclectic Mughal prince and patron” who was “exceptionally tolerant” of other faiths, but tragically an “ill-fated figure”. His death came to be lamented as a “civilisational tipping point” from the Mughal ethos of  ‘peace with all’ towards a narrowly secretarial empire.[xiv] These narratives developed somewhere in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century India —an India which had increasingly become conscious (and occasionally violent) of its diverse religious identities.[xv]

To conclude in the words of Faruqui:

“Dārā was not as much of a town crier for tolerant syncretism as supporters believe and not as much of a threat to Islam as detractors have thought. Dārā fervently believed that he had found proof that elements within Hinduism were more Islamic than anyone had previously credited them. His foray into Hindu texts served, paradoxically, to solidify and secure his essentially Qur’ānic worldview.”[xvi]

Chandini Jaswal

Chandini Jaswal has recently completed her master’s in History from Panjab University, India. She secured the gold medal in her undergraduate history degree. Jaswal is a core team member at Karwaan Heritage, India and a communication member at The Museum of British Colonialism, UK-Kenya. Jaswal’s research interest focuses on subcontinental history, particularly women’s studies in pre-modern India through histories of art. She has presented her research at conferences such as the New York Conference on Asian Studies and the Indian Association for South Asian Studies. Furthermore, she is engaged in documenting oral histories of the 1947 Partition. Twitter handle: @jaswalC05


[i] Supriya Gandhi, The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2020), p. 02. Gandhi emphasises that this dramatic sequence of a court scene might not be true.

[ii] See Muhammad Kazim, ‘Alamgirnama’ in History of India as Told by its Own Historians: Muhammadan Period, Vol 7 of History of India as Told by its Own Historians: Muhammadan Period, eds. Henry Elliot and John Dowson (London: Trübner and Co., 1877) p. 179.

[iii] Ashok Malik, ‘The Month We Lost Dara’ Daily Pioneer, August 11, 2009. <www.defence.pk/pdf/threads/the-month-we-lost-dara-shikoh.31550>.

[iv] Doha Tazi Hemida, ‘A Hindu-Islamic Translation: Retrieving Dārā Shikūh’s Confluence of the Two Oceans’, 2005 <https://cjh.uchicago.edu/issues/spring17/8.6.pdf>, p. 38.

[v] Hemida, ‘A Hindu-Islamic Translation’, p. 41.

[vi] Munis D Faruqui, ‘Dara Shukoh, Vedanta and the Imperial Succession in Mughal India’ in Vasudha Dalmia, and Munis Daniyal Faruqui, eds., Religious Interactions in Mughal India, First edition (New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 30.

[vii] Faruqui, ‘Dara Shukoh, Vedanta and the Imperial Succession in Mughal India’,  p. 51.

[viii] Faruqui, ‘Dara Shukoh, Vedanta and the Imperial Succession in Mughal India’,  p. 53.

[ix] Faruqui, ‘Dara Shukoh, Vedanta and the Imperial Succession in Mughal India’,  p. 54.

[x] Dara Shukoh wrote in Sirr-i Akbar: “Nadanastha danasta wa nafahmidaha fahmida” As translated by Munis D Faruqui in ‘Dara Shukoh, Vedanta and the Imperial Succession in Mughal India’, p. 55.

[xi] Jonardon Ganeri, ‘Dārā Shukoh and the Transmission of the Upaniṣads to Islam’ in Migrating Texts and Traditions, ed. by William Sweet (University of Ottawa Press, 2012), pp. 177–88.

[xii] Personal Correspondence with Dr Ankur Barua, Senior Lecturer in Hindu Studies, University of Cambridge.

[xiii] BN Goswamy, ’Anquetil-Duperron: French scholar who took Upanishads to Europe’, Art & Soul, The Tribune, December 05, 2021. < https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/features/anquetil-duperron-french-scholar-who-took-upanishads-to-europe-346484>.

[xiv] Rajeev Kinra, ‘Infantilising Baba Dara: The Cultural Memory of Dara Shekuh and the Mughal Public Sphere’, Journal of Persianate Studies, 2, (2009), pp. 165-193. p. 165.

[xv] The Hindu-Muslim antagonism was crystallised in 1940, when Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the future father of Pakistan gave the call for creation of a separate nation for the Indian Muslims, remarking:

“The Hindus and Muslims belong to two different religious philosophies, social customs, and literature… and indeed belong to two different civilisations which are based mainly on conflicting ideas and conceptions…”

See ‘An Extract from the Presidential Address of M.A. Jinnah — Lahore, 1940.’ In India’s Partition: Process, Strategy and Mobilization, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001) p. 56.

This speech became the basis of an extremely violent, communally-charged Partition of India in 1947 into two distinct nations: India and Pakistan, upon independence from colonial rule.

[xvi] Faruqui, ‘Dara Shukoh, Vedanta and the Imperial Succession in Mughal India’, p. 33.


OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
courtstudies (June 28, 2024). In Search of Monotheism: Rethinking Dārā Shikūh as an Apostle of Hindu-Muslim Unity. The Court Observer. Retrieved July 17, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/11wep


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