Dara Shukoh and the Upanishads



The Mughal Prince, Dara Shukoh is undoubtedly one of the most tragic figures in Indian history. The life and death of Dara Shukoh is one of the ‘what-ifs’ of Indian history. How would Indian history be different had Dara instead of Aurangzeb won the battle of succession? A noted intellectual in his own right, Dara was a champion of cultural interaction between faiths and would write and commission several great works on the comparative religious discourse between Hinduism and Islam. Author Avik Chanda, in his new bookDara Shukoh: The Man who would be King’, looks at the story of this tragic prince.

Since the earliest days of the Mughal Empire, its sovereigns had taken a keen interest in the customs, mores and sciences of the indigenous people of Hindustan. But the project of deciphering the hidden mystical truths in the millennia-old runes and scriptures of the Hindus found a new purpose during the reign of Akbar. At his instance, a dedicated maktab-khana of translators and scholars was set up, to ponder intricate questions of doctrine and theological argument, and translate tracts in their multitude – from Sanskrit to Persian. From the Ramayana and Mahabharata, to the Bhagavad Gita and Yoga Vashisht, and treatises on every subject from mathematics to medicine and astronomy – the Emperor swiftly collated a treasure-trove of translated works as part of his library. Scholars handpicked by the Emperor himself were granted an almost daily audience. The great books of the Hindus were read out in Persian from beginning to end, as Akbar listened with complete focus, interrupting the reading from time to time, to clarify a point of discourse or ask questions.

But besides the Emperor’s unbounded intellectual curiosity, another motive was also at work. As his Prime Minister Abu’l-Fazl explained in the preface to his work, Ain-i-Akbari, the project of translating from the scriptures of the Hindus was conceived because ‘hostility towards them might abate and the temporal sword be swayed awhile from the shedding of blood, so that discussions within and without be turned into peace and the thorn of strife and enmity bloom into a garden of concord.’ This was not Abu’l-Fazl’s own manifesto, but that of his imperial patron. After subjugating the local chiefs with military might, Akbar had begun to adopt a policy of diplomacy and marriage alliances, and more broadly, an approach of conciliation with the large Hindu majority of the population he ruled over.

In the preface of his translation of the Mahabharata, Abu’l-Fazl clarified this attitude even further:

Having observed the fanatical hatred between the Hindus and the Muslims and being convinced that it arose only from mutual ignorance, that enlightened monarch (Akbar) wished to dispel the same by rendering the books of the former accessible to the latter. He selected in the first instance, the Mahabharata as the most comprehensive … and ordered it to be translated by competent and impartial men of both nations. [H]e wished to show to the Hindus that some of their grossest errors and superstitions had no foundation in their ancient books, and to further convince the Muslims of their folly in assigning to the past existence of the world so short a span as seven thousand years.

As he sat before the open window, the magnificent but still mild sun now full in his face, Dara considered all this. For him, the yearning for knowledge of other faiths, especially the old religion of the Hindus, did not have anything to do with politics. If the love of learning had begun as an intellectual pursuit, that too he had left behind years ago. The only factors of motivation that remained in him were intuition and insight. What he sought was the Truth and nothing short of it would do. He took up his pen and began to write swiftly, with a steady, clear hand.

Now, thus sayeth this unafflicted, un-sorrowing fakir Dara Shukoh that after knowing the Truth of Truths and ascertaining the secrets and subtleties of the true religion of the Sufis and having being endowed with this great gift, he thirsted to know the tenets of the religion of the Indian monotheists. And having had repeated and continuous discussion with the doctors and perfect divines of this Indian religion … he did not find any difference, except verbal, in the way they sought and comprehended Truth.

Dara Shukoh with three sages with inscription
Dara Shukoh with three sages with inscription|Wikimedia Commons

Dara paused for a moment and rested his quill. He had discoursed with the learned men of all faiths, he had perused the great texts of the Hindus, and gradually, the conviction had grown firm in him, that apart from the manner of exposition of the doctrines, there was no essential difference between Islam and Hinduism. It astounded him that all the doctors of each faith were so mired in the constructs of their own religions that they had not realized this one important philosophical Truth – perhaps the most important of all – that in essence, the two faiths were one and the same. It was essential, therefore, that they be apprised of this grand insight.

Consequently, having collected the views of the two parties and having brought together the points – the knowledge of which is absolutely essential and useful for the seekers of Truth, he (Dara) has compiled a tract and called it Majma ul Bahrain (Mingling of the two Oceans), as it is the collection of the truth and wisdom of two Truth-knowing groups. The great mystics have said: ‘Tasawwuf is equity, and further Tasawwuf is the abandonment of religious obligations.’ So one who is just and discerning will at once understand in ascertaining these points how deeply I had to think … discerning, intelligent persons will derive much pleasure from this Risala while persons of blunt intelligence, of either side, will get no share of its benefits.

Shah Jahan receiving his son Dara Shukoh
Shah Jahan receiving his son Dara Shukoh|Wikimedia Commons

By the mid-1650s, the various political juntas across the Empire had solidified into distinct cohorts. While Dara, his father’s favourite, held sway at the imperial court, each of his three brothers controlled an important region, and had direct access to revenue, and active, battlehardened armies of his own.


In terms of religious outlook, no four brothers could be more different from one another.

Whereas the eldest Prince was the otherworldly Sufi, with his apparent indulgence of all faiths other than his own, Shuja had distinct leanings towards the Shia faith, Aurangzib was the avowed orthodox Sunni, and Murad seemed to have no religious affiliations whatsoever, content as long as the pleasures of the senses continued unabated and there was the occasional prospect of warfare and slaughter. But the biggest rivalry – and animosity – was between the two power centres: Dara and Aurangzib.

Wedding procession of Dara Shikoh, with Shah Shuja and Aurangzeb behind him
Wedding procession of Dara Shikoh, with Shah Shuja and Aurangzeb behind him| Royal Collection Trust, London

Team LHI: Dara Sukoh’s greatest intellectual project was undoubtedly his Persian translation of the Upanishads, that he named ‘Sirr-i- Akbar’ or ‘The Great Secret’ that he completed in September 1657.

This grand project notwithstanding, Dara now felt as if all his previous discussions with the gnostics of differing faiths, his private meditations and deliberations, were but a preparation for the project that he now undertook. By now, not only was he a regular feature at the durbar, sitting on a golden throne to his father’s right, he would also accompany the Emperor on all his tours. But in February 1657, when Shah Jahan, ailing and elderly, left Delhi for Mukhlispur, so urgent and serious was Dara’s work that he sought imperial sanction not to accompany his father, remaining instead in the capital, to focus on his project.

The pressing work for which he had not accompanied his sick father was the translation of the principal Upanishads from the original Sanskrit to Persian. The choice of language was significant. Persian was the official language of the Mughal court; members of the Hindu intelligentsia were also suitably conversant in it. For his ambitious and intensely personal venture, the Crown Prince had assembled the most learned sanyasis and pandits from the holy city of Benares – and, after six strenuous months, completed his project on of 28 June 1657, at his palace, Manzil-iNigambodh, in Delhi.

The preface that Dara wrote for the book was in itself a treatise of singular import, combining as it did a brief spiritual biography, his personal quest for deep philosophical truths, a meditation on the interpretation of certain Suras in the Quran, and the revelation that had led him to undertake this project in the first place. In it, he recounted how in 1640, he had visited the land of Kashmir – paradise-like in its beauty – and there, had met the great Sufi saint, Mullah Shah, who became his tutor and guide.

Dara Shukoh
Dara Shukoh|Wikimedia Commons

Gnosticism and monotheism were subjects in which Dara had formed an abiding interest. His being was filled with longing for tawhid. He had noted that the concept of monotheism enumerated in the Quran was largely allegorical, and he wished to discover the deep inner meanings they contained. To this end, he had gone through the holy books of many religions such as the Book of Moses, the Psalms, Gospels and holy scriptures, but he discovered that the discussion of monotheism in those texts was no less cryptic. Also, in many of these cases, the translation itself was so slovenly as to be devoid of merit. His thoughts turned to the ancient religion of Hindustan. He wondered why it was that the theologians and mystics in the land did not disavow the concept of Unity of God.


He concluded that the true belief of the Hindus was aligned to that of monotheism.

It was only the action of certain selfish and ignorant people, passing themselves off as erudite, who displayed resistance and hostility towards monotheism.

‘And after verification of these circumstances,’ he wrote, ‘it appeared that among these most ancient people, of all their heavenly books, which are the four Vedas … together with a number of ordinances, descended upon the prophets of those times, the most ancient of whom was Brahma or Adam…’ Going by the Quran, which said that there was no land without a prophet and a revealed scripture, it stood to reason that the same must be true of Hindustan.

The true essence of the four holy books, containing all the secrets of the Path and contemplative exercise of pure monotheism, were the Upanishads. This was a true treasure of monotheism, the import of which was not known to many, even among Hindus. And the Hindus themselves, he felt, had tried to conceal it from the Muslims. The deep and sublime secrets that he had been searching for, and not found, could be obtained in these ancient books. And were these ancient texts not the first of all heavenly books to have been written?

And with this insight came his greatest revelation. The Quran indicated the existence of an ancient, transcendent hidden book: ‘Most surely it is an honoured Quran, in a book that is protected. None shall touch it, save the purified ones. It is a revelation by the Lord of the worlds.’ This hidden book, Dara concluded, was none other than the Upanishads. He was further convinced by the fact that etymologically speaking, the word ‘Upanishad’ lent itself to the notion of secret or esoteric learning from a teacher. Dara felt the need to substantiate the point further:

It is evident that this sentence (Sura) is not applicable to the Psalms or the Book of Moses or to the Gospel, and by the word ‘revelation’, it is clear that it is not applicable to the Lauh-i-Mahfuz (Reserved Tablet); and whereas the Upanekhat (Upanishads), which are a secret to be concealed and the essence of this book, and the verses of the holy Quran are literally found therein, of a certainty, therefore, the hidden book is this most ancient book, and hereby things unknown became known and things incomprehensible became comprehensible to this fakir.

Dara maintained that he had no material benefit to gain from this project except the spiritual benefit of his own self, his children, friends and seekers of Truth. Although a wider dissemination of the sublime secrets may have been his true intention, this statement was likely to have been an attempt on his part to deflect the righteous indignation of the ulema, when they read the treatise. He had reviled them enough in his writings and public statements.

‘Happy is he,’ the Prince wrote in conclusion to his preface, ‘who having the prejudices of vile selfishness, sincerely and with the Grace of God, renouncing all partiality, shall study and comprehend this translation entitled the Sirr-i-Akbar (the Great Secret), knowing it to be [the] translation of the words of God, shall become imperishable, fearless, unsolicitous and eternally liberated.’

Excerpted with permission from Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King’ by Avik Chanda, Harper Collins Publishers.

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