On Emperor Akbar

I am grateful to reader Ganpat Ram for suggesting a new line of thought with the following comment on Emperor Akbar:

Every Muslim ruler with rare exceptions showed great concern to contain and push back Hinduism. Even the relatively broad-minded Akbar destroyed Hindu temples.

My response to Ganpat Ram was that this was one opinion in the spectrum of opinions and I recalled an article (East and West: The Reach of Reason) by Professor Amartya Sen published in the year 2000 in which a contrary opinion had been expressed.

The following are two excerpts from Professor Sen’s article:

Taking note of the denominational diversity of Indians (including Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Jains, Sikhs, Parsees, Jews, and others), he laid the foundations of the secularism and religious neutrality of the state, which he insisted must ensure that “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.” Akbar’s thesis that “the pursuit of reason” rather than “reliance on tradition” is the way to address difficult social problems is a view that has become all the more important for the world today.


Indian secularism, which was strongly championed in the twentieth century by Gandhi, Nehru, Tagore, and others, is often taken to be something of a reflection of Western ideas (despite the fact that Britain is a somewhat unlikely choice as a spearhead of secularism). In contrast, there are good reasons to link this aspect of modern India, including its constitutional secularism and judicially guaranteed multiculturalism (in contrast with, say, the privileged status of Islam in the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan), to earlier Indian writings and particularly to the ideas of this Muslim emperor of four hundred years ago.

This is another opinion in the spectrum of opinions. Professor Amartya Sen is a Nobel Laureate and perhaps the most respected Indian intellectual today, admired not only for his deep knowledge and erudite thinking but also for his empathy for the forgotten and the marginalized. Like Akbar, he is committed to the supremacy of reason over religious compulsions.

While reading Professor Sen’s article my mind switched to another track. Important enough as Akbar was, it would not have been surprising if he had remained an obscure figure for the majority in the subcontinent given the extent of illiteracy and lack of exposure to history of the literate. Perhaps the only reason Akbar avoided that fate was the movie Mughal-e-Azam in which Prithviraj Kapoor made him immortal.

So here is another opinion in the spectrum of opinions. One can only presume that Prithviraj Kapoor, a Hindu, must not have felt any disgust in immortalizing a person who had insulted his ancestors by destroying their temples. Not only was Prithviraj Kapoor a Hindu, he was also a Pathan; and anyone who knows Indian history would be aware that there was no love lost between the Mughals and the Pathans – both groups being mostly Muslims. Should this make us realize that we trivialize our history by portraying it as a war of religions?

But all this was by way of preamble to the thought that was triggered in my mind by Ganpat Ram. It was as follows:

Was Akbar a Muslim king who ruled over India or was he an Indian king who was a Muslim? If the latter and if, for the moment, we go along with Professor Amartya Sen that Akbar was good king, we would conclude that Akbar was a good Indian king who was a Muslim. But did his goodness have anything to do with his faith or was it due to fact that he gave precedence to reason over religion? And did his goodness have any connection with the nature of all Muslims?

Following this line of thought we could conclude that Aurangzeb was a bad Indian king who was a Muslim. We could attribute his badness not to his faith but to the fact that he gave precedence to religion over reason. Even so, could his badness be held to reflect the badness of all other Muslims?

Two conclusions could follow from this argument. First, that subordinating the logic of reason to the politics of religion (or caste, sect, ethnicity, nationality, color, language, sex) is fraught with dangers. Second, that transposing the behavior of an individual, good or bad, to a collectivity is fallacious and fails the test of reason.

In Professor Sen’s judgment the strongest point made by Emperor Akbar was the following:

Reason had to be supreme, since even in disputing the validity of reason we have to give reasons.


  • kabir
    Posted at 07:37h, 18 September Reply


    You are right. Akbar is clearly one of the antecedents of Indian secularim and one of the creators of the distinctively Indian ethos. His attempt to bring all religions closer through the creation of “Din-e-Illahi” is also particularly noteworthy.

    I also agree with you that Akbar and Aurengzeb should not be judged as good or bad Muslims– or even primarily as Muslims. They were both members of the same dynesty who differed by temprement and historical circumstance. Akbar was arguably more personally tolerant while Aurengzeb was more dogmatic, but they both did what it took to stay in power–which is what rulers do everywhere.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 13:14h, 19 September Reply

    I believe that the destruction of religious sites should be seen in its historical context. Religious structures were not purely centers of worship and meditation alone, as they are today. Religious places were centers of intellectual as well as political activity. Even the Greek temples were sacked when they were attacked by . Both Akbar and Aurangzeb not only destroyed temples when attacking a rival kingdom but in times of peace there is evidence that they gave protection to temples. How does one reconcile these? Can Aurangzeb’s more extensive temple destruction have something to do with his constantly warring empire?
    The temple destruction can be compared to what the Taliban did to the Buddhist statues. Why did they choose that moment to do it when they knew the statues were there all along even during the early years that they seized power? It was to make a political statement.

    I believe that if today’s America were conquered, the strongest political statement of humiliation to Americans would be given by the conqueror by destroying the statue of liberty. Will the conquerors then be considered anti-libertarian? That can only be established through an examination of how the hypothetical conquerors then govern over America.

    • Ganpat Ram
      Posted at 15:16h, 06 October


      If you argument is correct, the Hindus who destroyed the Babri Masjid had no particular religious animus against Islam? They could be considered good secularists?

      General Dyer remarked that he was maascring Indians at Amritsar to keep the peace, not out of any bias against Indians racially. That convinces you, I presume.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 03:01h, 07 October

      If you argument is correct, the Hindus who destroyed the Babri Masjid had no particular religious animus against Islam? They could be considered good secularists?

      I have my reasons to think otherwise. The movement traces itself back to the Golwalkers and Savarkars. Everybody knows that they loved muslims.


  • kabir
    Posted at 17:40h, 19 September Reply

    @ Vinod

    Agreed, destroying temples makes a political statement. But I also think one would have to look at the biography and personality of the particular ruler. Arguably, Akbar was personally more liberal, while Aurangzeb was personally more “devout” or fundementalist. Thus, they acted differently.

    An interesting point of comparison would be Aurangzeb and his brother Dara. Both princes grew up together in the same environment, yet one was liberal and translated the Gita into Persian, and the other was much more rigid in his beliefs. The only explanation for these differences that I can think of is the personalities of the individuals, though one could also arguably attribute it to different political currents at the time

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:39h, 19 September

      Kabir: Could you check if Aurangzeb and Dara Shikoh had the same mother.

  • kabir
    Posted at 02:29h, 20 September Reply

    SA: According to Wikipedia, both Aurangzeb and Dara were Mumtaz Mahal’s sons.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:50h, 22 September Reply

    How does Sher Shah Suri stand up to Akbar in context of secular attitude?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:48h, 24 September

      Anil: I couldn’t find much on this specific aspect of Sher Shah Suri’s rule. However, the list of his achievements is very impressive given the very short time he was in power. It seems to me he would not have frittered away the time in non-productive activities. It also seems quite clear that it was his foundation which Akbar consolidated. So, Akbar’s secularism also seems rooted in Sher Shah’s legacy. This is an inference I am making from what I read but as I mentioned I did not find any direct evidence to offer.

  • Sheema Kermani
    Posted at 08:09h, 22 September Reply

    Yesterday at a family dinner on the occasion of Eed I had quite a heated argument with all the members of my extended family about this whole issue of how there is no logic of reason to religion – I had simply made a statement that I find the growing religious hypocrisy in our society extremely offensive and gave the example of people going into “aitaekaf” these days. Aitaekaf is the new fashion for the new Islamists here these days and the way it is practised is that they go and sit in the mosque for 15 days and every evening their friends bring them iftari and they keep their cell phones with them to conduct their business. No way close to what it was meant to be – a total submission and giving up on the routine of life, friends etc. However the point I am trying to make is that one is not allowed any more to criticise or even comment on any thing that people decide to do in the name of religion. My family really harangued me for being an aetheist and this included young and old and believe me no discussion is possible. So our dream of secularism may just remain a dream! I have always wondered how Dara and Aurangzeb could develop such different sensibilities- but then I see it amongst ourselves. It is sad that in the Pakistan of today there are such few other religous communities left. Had this not been the case perhaps the society would have been different!

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 10:57h, 23 September Reply

    Sheema: Pakistan has stood Marx on his head. Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses; in Pakistan it has become the drug of choice of the elites.

    Religion has penetrated so deeply into everyday life that even those without interest in religion feel compelled to talk about religion. There were times when young people used to be consumed by poetry, or understanding the origins of the family, or the quest for social justice. Now, religion has displaced most of those passions. Even sex has become Islamic – can you imagine!

    The loss of diversity (religious and ideological) has been devastating to culture and creativity – just compare pre- and post-partition Government College in Lahore; from a fount of ideas to a wasteland. It has also disproved the notion that conflicts would cease once religions were separated. I wonder how grown-up people could have had such simplistic notions.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 03:32h, 24 September Reply

    I’m in the course of reading Pankaj Mishra’s ‘Temptations of the West’. In the chapter on ‘Ayodhya:The modernity of Hinduism’ he talks about Ramakrishna Paramahans – the spiritual father of the Ayodhya temple building movement and who presides over a militant Hindu sect. Mishra explains that the rise of Ram in Ayodhya is a very recent phenomenon. Paramahans’ sect itself was actually established in the 19th century to counter the pre-existing popular Shaivite sect in Ayodhya. And guess who funded the sect ? – none other than the Nawab of Awadh- Wajid Ali Shah.

    In a dispute between Hindus and muslims in 1855 where the muslims claimed that the Hindus were trying to build a temple over a pre-existing mosque, the Nawab kept his distance and refused to side with the muslims. He said –

    We are devoted to love; do not know of religion.
    So what if it is kaaba or the house of idols

    Pankaj Mishra goes onto detail the villianization and trivialization of persian, turk and Afghan muslim rule over India by the British which was taken in fully by an upward mobile upper caste Hindus who looked forward to a ‘redemption of modernity’ and ‘European nationalism’. But that is irrelevant to this post. I’ll stop here.

  • kabir
    Posted at 04:13h, 24 September Reply

    What a beautiful quote Vinod, thanks for sending:)

    There’ a scene in Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj ke kilhari” where Wajid Ali Shah is watching a dance performance, and the music in the background has something to do with Sri Krishna, I don’t remember the lyrics exactly… when his vizier comes in to tell him about the British annexation of Awadh. The Nawab insists on the performance being completed– so enthralled was he by music and dance.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 16:19h, 24 September Reply

    I recommend this video:


    The part where Alberuni gives his thoughts about India is remarkably refreshing and open minded.

    What Amir Khusroe has to say about India is also noteworhty. With Turkic parents and Perisan mother tongue he loved India to bits!!

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:54h, 25 September

      Vinod: Thanks, I watched the video. I doubt it will change the views of those who have dug in their heels on either side of the emotional divide. It does make the point though that Babur and Akbar (especially) were exceptional individuals, the latter holding his own in any global galaxy. This supports the views of Professor Amartya Sen that I had cited earlier. I suppose two exceptional individuals in a dynasty is not a bad score – that is the weakness of dynasties; the good work of one can be undone by the misrule of another.

      The one thing to keep in mind though is that this continuum of invasions and settlements in India through the Khyber pass was precisely because India was a paradise on earth – extremely rich, beautiful, alluring, mysterious, sensual, and steeped in learning. Alberuni and Amir Khusro was expressing the reality they must have felt and that we feel even today. All the invasions originated from small places that were relatively resource poor and unable to support their populations. This also explains why there was never any need for invasions from India, or from China, for that matter, till very recent times. It was not that Indian rulers were ethically superior; it was more that they were already living in paradise and had little need to exert themselves.

      We can wish that such invasions had never taken place but then human beings would still be concentrated in East Africa where they originated. We can’t imagine the past as one defined by sovereign boundaries that people should have respected. That would require them to have very modern sensibilities in a pre-modern age. The only choice we have is how to interpret history and our heritage.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 05:01h, 25 September

      SA, some very poignant points in there. Thanks for sharing.

    • Ganpat Ram
      Posted at 17:42h, 06 October

      Vinod, south asian

      I find it quite poignant that yopu can accept that destroying temples does not imply a bias against hinduism.

      I put forward a strange idea: that if you respect Hinduism, you do NOT destroy temples. Any takers? Or is this a bit too poignant for you?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:51h, 06 October

      Ganpat: It is a bit too poignant and also a bit too simplistic. At the time of the invasions there was no Hindustan or Hindus or Hinduism. Hindustan and Hindus were the names given by people who lived on one side of the Indus to the land and the people who lived on the other side. Hinduism was a term invented by the British who were puzzled that there could be a people without a religion like theirs.

      If you don’t believe me read the writings of Dr. Ambedkar (I hope you will not label him deeply dishonest):

      The first and foremost thing that must be recognized is that Hindu Society is a myth. The name Hindu is itself a foreign name. It was given by the Mohammedans to the natives for the purpose of distinguishing themselves [from them]. It does not occur in any Sanskrit work prior to the Mohammedan invasion. They did not feel the necessity of a common name, because they had no conception of their having constituted a community. Hindu Society as such does not exist. It is only a collection of castes. Each caste is conscious of its existence. Its survival is the be-all and end-all of its existence. Castes do not even form a federation. A caste has no feeling that it is affiliated to other castes, except when there is a Hindu-Muslim riot. On all other occasions each caste endeavours to segregate itself and to distinguish itself from other castes…

      To put it in plain language, what the Hindus call Religion is really Law, or at best legalized class-ethics. Frankly, I refuse to call this code of ordinances as Religion.

      Personally, I feel this charactersitic was a strength and reducing it to a religion like any other, with the attendant bigotry and intolerance, just to be like the Christians, was a retrogressive step. But that is just my opinion.

    • Ganpat Ram
      Posted at 12:14h, 07 October


      Frankly, I am appalled by your answer.

      The Vedas, Mahabharata and its Gita, the Ramayana, all pre-date the Muslim invaders by many centuries, and Hindus hold that thet definitely set out a set of ideas that constitute a religion.

      But even if they don’t, by your conception, how does that mean destroying temples did not signify contempt for the faith they embodied?

      If I say Islam is not a religion by my conception (and there are Hindus who say that), can I destroy mosques without contempt for the faith they represent?

      No wonder Pakistan happened, if Muslims – even those claiming to be freindly to Hinduism ! – have such monumental contempt for Hinduism.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:48h, 07 October

      Ganpat: I was not stating my opinion. I was quoting the words of Dr. Ambedkar who was not a Muslim claiming to be friendly to Hinduism.

      Dr. Ambedakar was not denying that the Vedas, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana existed. He was arguing that they did not translate into the collective conciousness of a shared religion. Dr. Ambedkar was not alone in pointing this out. Much before him Sir Denzil Ibbetson, the author of The Punjab Census Report of 1881 made the same observation. While laying out the ‘Census definition of Hindus’, Ibbetson began with a preamble which warned of the ‘absolute impossibility of laying down any definition or indicating any test by which we may distinguish him who is a Hindu from him who is not… Practically, the rule we adopted was this’:

      Every native who was unable to define his creed, or described it by any other name than that of some recognized religion or sect of some such religion, was held to be and classed as Hindu.

      About the term Hinduism, he noted that the ‘clumsy name is only justified by convention’ adding that ‘Religion, in the etymological sense of the word, it is not, and never was.’ [Reference: In the Making: Identity Formation in South Asia by Kamaljit Bhasin-Malik, 2007]

      I posted a review earlier of Wendy Doniger’s new book The Hindus: An Alternative History in which the reviewer summarized the author’s point:

      In pre-colonial India, all manner of folks who might have practised what we understand loosely to be “religion” did not see themselves as part of any umbrella category corresponding to the English word “Hinduism”. There was no single “-ism” at play until India’s encounter with European missionaries and colonists in the 17th century. As Doniger writes, tongue in cheek, today we could just as well call it “the religion formerly known as Hinduism”.

      The British left a deep scar in the Indian psyche which forced Indians to invent bigger and better histories and a bigger and better religion than the British thereby abandoning their own uniqueness. It is that heritage that we have to rediscover. Not having a religion that falls in the same mould as Judeo-Christianity is not a handicap and could be a strength. And having a different kind of ‘religion’ does not mean that individuals cease to have value or a claim to respect or that their places of worship could be destroyed.

    • Ganpat Ram
      Posted at 09:34h, 08 October


      I guess I agree.

      The British left a deep scar on the Indian psyche, and led them to invent “Hinduism” to restore self-confidence, as you say. You are obviously right that it would stremgthen “Hindus” to admit how artificial their “religion” is, and go back to what they were before.

      Similrly, the Arabs have a deep scar on their psyche. They felt inferior on encountering the aggresive monotheistic religions of Christianity and Judaism, and INVENTED Islam as a way of restoring their self-respect. Invented a grand “religion”, just as Indians were to do.

      So Arabs should go back to being what they were before the invention of the “religion” of “Islam”.

      It would strengthen the Arabs.

      Indian “Muslims” would then obviously return to what THEY were before “Islam” reached them. It would strengthen them.

      Glad to agree at last.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 16:16h, 08 October

      Ganpat: Speculation provides the initial hypotheses. Evidence enables them to be proved or disproved. The scientist accepts the outcome. When existing evidence is insufficient, new research is carried out. Someone in a PhD program could suggest your hypothesis as a dissertation proposal. If it is borne out, I can already envisage some Arab Muslim (there are non-Muslim Arabs also) accusing the researcher of being deeply dishonest. More research would be conducted till the weight of the evidence begins to lean heavily on one side or the other. At that point one side could be like the flat-earth society – it would continue to exist but no one would pay it much attention.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 03:23h, 07 October Reply

    Not related, but I find it extremely tragic that a most oppressive society inhabited this land that was extremely rich, beautiful, alluring, mysterious, sensual, and steeped in learning. It saddens me greatly that when it finally looks like the weight of oppression might be thrown away the land is no longer beautiful and wealthy. This would be a most cruel fate.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:09h, 07 October

      Vikram: Isn’t it up to us to make the land beautiful and wealthy?

    • Ganpat Ram
      Posted at 11:53h, 07 October


      The land might start to become beautiful when people stop telling obvious untruths such as that destroying Hindu temples does not imply contempt for Hinduism.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:57h, 07 October

      Ganpat: I agree that there is no place for untruths. Whether something is obvious or not is often not so obvious.

      Last year a Christian robbed the house of a Jew. Is it obvious that the crime was motivated by a contempt for Judaism? The robber was apprehended. He told the police he attempted the robbery because of an insult to Christianity. Is it obvious he was telling the truth?

      As any good mystery story tells us the truths that appear obvious at the outset are unlikely to be the obvious truths. It takes a lot of meticulous investiagtion to get to the truth. Those who do the painstaking work are professionals and they are not deeply dishonest if their conclusion does not accord with some a priori truth that seems obvious. While professionals who are accredited by their peer groups are not deeply dishonest they can make honest errors that have to be pointed out with counter evidence.

    • Ganpat Ram
      Posted at 16:24h, 07 October


      In that case, will you be prepared to accept that Hindus destroying Muslim mosques or attacking Muslims may have had no anti-Muslim sentiment? That Modi could well be pro-Muslim and secularist?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:42h, 07 October

      Ganpat: I would look at what the evidence says. Indian civil society, media, and courts are already looking at the evidence. Let’s wait for the verdict.

    • Ganpat Ram
      Posted at 17:16h, 07 October


      If the Christian you refer to not only robbed a Jew’s house, but proclaimed his hatred of Jews as the reason, then yes, I would think there are grounds for considering him contemptuous of Judaism. If he destroyed a synagogue, this would be even more evident.

      Muslims destroying Hindu temples have done it on numerous ocassions over many centuries, and proclimed their religious reason for so doing. Obviously, such intolerance then become an aspect of Islam. Islam has to be judged, like any religion, by what Muslims often do.

      No serious person would deny that caste prejudice has been an important aspect of Hinduism. Hindu reformers have admitted this and tried hard to reform it.

      Muslims would do well to admit Muslim intolerance that led to temple-destruction, and this is the only way to reform. Petty-fogging arguments like yours to whitewash Islam will only block the road to decent change.

      It’s your choice.

      Given your kind of response, I am not surprised Partition happened.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 18:59h, 07 October

      Ganpat: If he proclaimed his hatred of Jews that would count as admissible evidence. It would still remain to be coroborrated given the number of deeply dishonest people around. A bit ironical that the word of a robber can be taken at face value but not that of a world-renowned historian who has twice been offered the Padma Bhushan.

  • Ganpat Ram
    Posted at 20:26h, 07 October Reply

    South Asian

    How do we know the Hindu castesists are truly casteist? After all, we only have their actions and wors to go on, and they could be joking or acting.

    You are right there. We can never be sure ANYONE ois sinvcerely anything: they could always be acting. Perhaps Hitler was not an anti-semite, by your standard- he could just be acting.

    Or maybe actions count.

    As for Hinduism just being the invention of a few missionaries, good. At least it is not the invention of some Arab missionaries.

    I am convinced Partition was for the best. With most Muslims, serious self-critical analysis seems impossible.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 20:31h, 07 October

      Ganpat: All these things have to be determined by recourse to evidence.

Post A Comment