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Religious and Cultural Interactions in Mughal India

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Religious and Cultural Interactions in Mughal India

Archana Verma


Dara Shikoh Seeking Blessings from Sikh Guru Har Rai

The Mughal period is known for its harmonious interaction between religions and cultures under the Mughal patronage. The Mughal emperors were specially interested in promoting all the religions that existed in the South Asian sub-cotinent and they have been appreciated greatly for generating the synthesis of various cultural strands in the sub-continent. A lot has been written about the harmonious synthesis that took place between Islam and Hinduism during this period. Hence, in this paper I give some instaces of the way in which the three Abrahamic monotheisms interacted with each other under the Mughal patronage.




This inter-faith cultural synthesis was not something specific to the Mughals, but it existed in this sub-continent even centuries before the Mughals came to power.

In c. 1035, Al-Beruni in Kitab-al-Hind shows familiarity with both Old Testament and New testament of the Bible. Not only that, he appreciates the Christian doctrine of turning the cheek. However, he also recognises that since Christianity became the State religion in the days of Constantine, it spread in the world by using force.

Al-Beruni appreciates the Christian doctrine of changing the enemy with love. However, he understands that Jesus is not in favour of silenly accepting injustice from the oppressor. He mentions the message of Jesus that one should have the moral courage to speak out the truth in front of the oppressor. Thus, loving the enemy doesn't mean submiting to oppression.

We have an evidence from Amir Hasan Sijzi’s Fawa’idul Fawad that on 9th of Nov 1317, Sufi Saint Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia of Delhi declined to convert a Hindu to Islam. This points towards the fact that there was a feeling in hose times that everyone has the right to practise his or her own religion and we must not enforce our religion on others.

This text related the incident of another Sufi saint Bayazid Bustani. When Khwaja Bustani died, a Jew living near his house was asked by a Muslim why he didn’t convert to Islam. The Jew replied, “What form of Islam? If the kind that Khwaja Bustani practised, then I am not equal to practising it and if the kind you practise then I am repelled by this Islam.”

The Mughals not only inherited these ideas, they made it into a policy of statecraft. This had the advantage of consolidating their extensive Empire without much problem.

Akbar’s Ibadat-Khana and Sulah-Kul are well-known to the students of Indian history. In his palace at Fatehpur Sikri near Agra, Akbar built a hall where he used to invite the religious leaders from all religions and they used to engage in religious discussions before him. Akbar himself used to participate in these discussions with interest, as he had a great desire to learn about other religions. This hall was called Ibadat Khana (Hall of Worship). After gaining knowledge about all religions, Akbar devised a policy of Sulah-Kul in which he argued that all religions are equal. He took the positive strains from each religions and combined them together to evolve this special religious school of thought, which he felt was the best approach towards religiosity. Later, he further evolved it into a religion of his own called Din-i-Ilahi, in which fused together ideas from different religions. However, religions don't survive purely on considerations of spirituality. They often need quite non-religious manipulations to survive for a long time. Even in Akbar's time, there were very few adherents of this new religion of Akbar. After him, no one followed it.

Portuguese rule in Kerala and Goa brought an influx of Jews and Christians to the Mughal Empire as missionaries, religious preachers, traders and others. Both of these communities had existed in India since the very ancient period – Jews almost since several centuries before the Common Era and Christianity since the 1st century CE. However, in the Mughal period their influence grew in India.

Akbarnama the court biography of Akbar, gives the reference that on 21st June 1578, a Portuguese merchant trading in Bengal arrived at Akbar’s court with his wife. He introduced Akbar to the concept of monogamy as prescribed by the Christian clergy.

Jesuits Mission arrived at Akbar’s court in 1580. Badauni, another biographer of Akbar, mentions that Abu’l Fazl, the royal biographer was entrusted to meet the mission and translate the Bible into Persian. Akbar sent a mission to Goa and to Spain and asked for a copy of Bible.

Mirza Zulfigar alias Mubid, a scholar of Persian descent composed Dabistan – I – Mazahib (School of Religions) in Circa 1645 – 1653. The striking feature of this work is that this writer gives an impartial account of Judaism as Christianity and their comparison with Islamic thought. He doesn’t play one against the other. He even describes a debate between Muslim and Christian scholars in which the Christians win the debate. His description is quite accepting of the victory of the Christians over the Muslims in this debate. Prof Athar Ali says that this is reflective of the acceptance and a tolerance towards other people’s religions.

Mubid met the mystic saint Sarmad in Hyderabad in 1647. Sarmad tells him that he was originally a Jew, trained in Rabbinic theology. He became a Muslim later and travelled to India. He associated with Abhay Chand, a Hindu youth in Sind.

In his poetry, Sarmad denounces the religious rituals of all religions. He expresses true devotion and love for God with whom he expresses to unite. There are some verses where he calls himself an adherent of one or another religion – Judaism, Islam or Hinduism. Thus, Sarmad’s complex mysticism can be understood as giving equal respect to the spirituality of all religions while denouncing the orthodoxy of all religions. This kind of thinking attempts to bridge the gap between different religious groups.

The most illustrious follower of Sarmad was Dara Shikoh, the Crown Prince of the Mughal Empire. He inherited Akbar’s interest in all religions. He used to hold similar kind of discourses with the leaders of different faiths as Akbar had done. He placed all religions on an equal footing vis-√†-vis Islam.

Since the time of Akbar through his successors to Dara Shikoh, there had been an effort to study the Sanskrit scriptures. Akbar had got many Sanskrit texts translated into Persian, including the two epics viz., Ramayana and Mahabharata.

In particular, the 10th century saint Shankaracharya’s Advaita philosophy or monism was of special interest to the Mughals, including to Dara Shikoh. This philosophy taught that all universe is an integral part of the Supreme Divine Power (Brahma). In mystic Islam there was the concept of wahdat-al-wajud of Ibn Arabi, which talked about the unity of all existence within God.

Dara Shikoh and his predecessors had contended that Vedantic Advait philosophy was the same as that of spiritual Islam of wahdat-al-wajud. This created a bridge between Hindu and Islamic philosophical thoughts in the Mughal period and received patronage from the Mughal Emperors. Dara Shikoh was the inheritor of this tradition.

Since Vedantic Advaitism is based in the philosophy of Upanishads, Dara Shikoh took interest in getting the 52 major Upanishads translated into Persian, so that Vedantic philosophy could be understood. This was apart from his getting other Sanskrit texts translated as Akbar had done.

This kind of imperial patronage to the various religions in the Mughal period gave rise to artistic expressions which reflected the synthetic strains of this religious policy. Following are a few illustrations of this -



Adam - Mughal Miniature


This painting is a folio from the Bible, translated into Persian and illustrated in miniature painting form. While it depicts Adam, it also shows some familiarity of the artist with Rodin's Thinker, eventhough the Mughal court artists had never gone to Europe. Thus, this was an amalgamation of religion as well as culture.


Nativity - Mughal Miniature

This is again a folio from the Mughal Bible, showing the Nativity scene. However, it's obvious that the artists had never gone to Europe or seen comparable paintings from Europe. The two magis instead of three, the bejewelled Mary and the architecture popular in Islamic kingdoms behind her instead of a stable are striking. This is almost a princess delivering a child in a mansion.


The Last Supper - Mughal Miniature

This painting shows some rudimentary similarity in the poses of the figures with the  famous original version in Europe. However, it's obvious that the artists were given verbal details of the original which they tried to reproduce using their own imagination, using the features they were familiar with. There is some attempt to reproduce the European architecture and the presence of the dog is an addition.

It's quite possible that the Mughal Emperors and their artists were learning about these European artworks from the Portuguese travellers, religious figures, merchants etc who were frequenting the Mughal Empire. 

These reproductions show that eventhough the artists were not successful in reproducing the original paintings current in Europe, they were certainly being verbally guided and the Mughal Emperor was interested in getting this sacred text translated and painted using the metaphors of Europe. It is their inclination to learn about another religion and culture that must be appreciated.

References -


  • M. Athar Ali, "Muslims' Perceptions of Judaism and Christianity in Mughal India," in Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 33, No. 1, Feb 1999, pp. 243-255.

  • Tasadduq Hussain, "Spiritual Journey of Dara Shikoh," in Social Scientist, Vol. 30, No. 7/8, July-August 2002, pp. 54-66.

  • Walter J. Fischel, "Jews and Judaism at the Court of Mughal Emperors in Mediaeval India," in Proceedings of American Academy for Jewish research, Vol. 18, 1948-1949, pp. 137-177.

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