AKBAR AHMED — About five centuries ago, India was the center of a thriving empire under the leadership of Akbar the Great: India produced about a quarter of the world’s GDP and the people flourished under Akbar’s tolerant and inclusive leadership. In contrast, today the combined GDP of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan is about four percent (according to the IMF).
In order for their country to prosper as it did in the past, the leaders of modern India — as indeed those of other nations — have much to learn from Akbar not only in economics but in the field of inter-religious relations in a multi-cultural society.
Akbar is matched in his yearning for a nonviolent world by two other mighty emperors of India, Asoka and Kanishka. Keep in mind that all three ruled the major present-day nations of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — which together contain about a quarter of the world’s population.
After his epic victory at Kalinga, when he saw the slaughter of a hundred thousand men, Asoka renounced violence and declared his affiliation with the Buddhist faith. Through the prominent stupas built throughout his vast empire, he meticulously required his officials to care for ordinary people with compassion, integrity and justice.
Kanishka, who ruled India in the second century after Christ, was another mighty Emperor of India in the same category as Asoka and Akbar. Kanishka’s empire and dominions ranged from north of the Amu Darya River in Central Asia down south to Kundina and extended southeast to Pataliputra in the Ganges plain and northeast into China to present-day Xinjiang. Kashmir too was under his sphere of influence.
According to legend, he was a ruler with a cruel and harsh temperament but changed dramatically after his conversion to Buddhism. His conversion to Buddhism, it was said, was predicted by the Buddha himself centuries ago. He drew upon Hinduism and Buddhism to guide him. There is little doubt that his gentle and compassionate rule earned him the admiration and love of his people. His devotion to the Buddha was exemplary: the coins from his time have him on one side while the Buddha is featured on the other.
It was during the time of Kanishka that Buddhism made inroads into China. Kanishka’s capital at Gandhara was a dazzling city of students, scholars, diplomats, and priests. It linked central Asia to South Asia. Nearby Peshawar, too, was a major city then and housed Kanishka’s great stupa which was considered to be one of the wonders of the ancient world.
In any discussion of these emperors, we must not overlook their military might. Akbar’s army possessed some 30,000 armor-plated elephants which acted like modern tanks. His infantry and cavalry numbered in the hundreds of thousands. He was a successful military commander and doubled the size of his empire, extending — after half a century of his rule — from Afghanistan in the north, to the Muslim kingdoms in south India, from Sindh in the west to Bengal in the east. Yet he was capable of showing great humility and walked barefoot to pay homage to the great Sufi saints. But, most crucially, it was his spectacular success in winning over the non-Muslim religions of India that ensured the stability of his long reign and established his dynasty. His constant acts of kindness to the Hindus and Sikhs were legendary. His subjects were quick to note that those who battled him were quickly met by the force of the empire, but the clashes were not on the basis of religion. His most implacable foes — whether in the Muslim Shia kingdoms of the south or the Muslim Sunni tribes along what came to be known as the tribal areas of north India — were Muslim. Akbar the successful military general satiated with blood turned to the nonviolence preached by Jains.
Akbar had a soft spot for Jainism which led him to ban the killing of animals during Jain religious festivals and becoming a vegetarian. Akbar was fascinated by Jesus and revered him: he selected a profoundly spiritual quotation from Jesus to be emblazoned on the entrance to his new city, Fatehpur Sikri. He ordered his governors to spend their free time reading Rumi, the great mystic poet of love and another admirer of Jesus. Akbar allowed churches to be built in Agra and Lahore and one of his wives was Mary. Jesuit priests were encouraged to believe that conversion by the royal family was imminent. Indeed, it was said that Jehangir, Akbar’s son and heir, was partial to Christianity but fearing a backlash did not declare his affiliation.
We can assess Akbar’s attitude to religion by looking at what was considered the most visible symbol of Akbar’s reign — the ‘nine jewels’ or the Nauratan which consisted of nine members constituting the innermost circle of his advisers, each one a giant in his own right. Four of the most important of the nine Nauratan were Hindus. There was Raja Man Singh who was chief of staff of the Mughal army and held the highest rank of nobility matched only by the son of Akbar himself. Akbar was known to call him his own son. Raja Man Singh led the Mughal armies against the Hindu leader Maha Rana Pratap. Then there was the musical genius Tansen, Minister of Culture for the empire, who introduced various schools of music and was a legend in his lifetime.
Raja Todar Mal, the Finance Minister of the empire, laid down the foundations of district administration, taxation and land surveys and a table of weights and measures. In short, the very foundations of what would become the civil administration of India, later adopted by the British and still in use in South Asia. And finally, there was Raja Birbal, the Foreign Minister and poet laureate who stayed loyally by Akbar’s side for 30 years. When he was killed in 1586 by Muslim Pushtun tribesmen, Akbar was so shocked by the news that he withdrew from public life for several days refusing to eat or drink only to emerge to order the Mughal army to fall upon the tribes like a thunderbolt. Thus, four of Akbar’s nine jewels were of the Hindu faith. Akbar’s main wife was also Hindu as were the mothers of the next few Mughal emperors.
There was little doubt that Akbar had stabilized what looked like an empire on the verge of collapse and created a universal sense of harmony and peace. To give context to our discussion of religious tolerance, while Akbar was embracing non-Muslims, Henry the Eighth of England, slaughtered some 70,000 innocent Catholics. Akbar was and is remembered widely as Mughal-i-Azam, the Great Mughal. India’s greatest-ever Bollywood movie, so voted by those in the industry, is called Mughal-i-Azam and Akbar is a central figure in the story.
The fate of Akbar, Kanishka and Ashoka, the three towering emperors of India, is now tied up with the narrow-minded and nasty politics of the subcontinent. Ashoka is accepted in India, but Kanishka is barely known because his history is so directly linked with what is now Pakistan. As for Akbar, however great an emperor, he was still a Muslim and therefore could do no right.
A current cabinet minister explained that Akbar was a tyrant like Hitler and the name of Allahabad, the city Akbar founded, and one of the main roads of Delhi named after him has been changed. In Pakistan, none of the three emperors are really well-known: the first two are ignored because they are considered non-Muslim, therefore kafir and Akbar meets a similar fate: most Pakistanis see him as a lapsed Muslim because of his tolerance and inclusiveness towards the non-Muslims of his empire and even accuse him of wanting to create his own religion.
In India, it is argued that history is to be read without Islam, in Pakistan that there was no history before Islam. Whichever is worse — the distortion of history in India or indifference to it in Pakistan — the results are the same: the towering figures that united a continent with compassion, skill and goodwill are relegated to the shadows of our common story and we are, therefore, deprived of any lessons we can learn from them. Of course, there are honorable exceptions among scholars and commentators, but they all face a tidal wave of communal prejudice that can easily convert to violence. In the vacuum the furies of ignorance, hatred and prejudice rage across the land.
Narendra Modi and his cult following in the BJP, the party running the country, propagate the idea of Hindutva or India as the land only of and for the Hindus. Amit Shah, the President of the BJP, and Modi’s number two, promised to push millions of Muslim “illegals” — he called them “termites” — into the Bay of Bengal. The more ambitious members of the BJP plan for the day they can also obliterate non-Hindus from the neighboring Muslim lands like Pakistan and impose Hindutva. Those not born Hindus must be expelled or done away with. The main targets are Muslims, Christians and even the Dalit. The party ideologues have long cited Hitler as an ideal role model to emulate. If he could wipe out the Jews, they have argued, we can get rid of our Muslims and other minorities. The frequent public lynching and stabbing of Muslims and attacks on Christians and Dalits thus have a historical context.
Viral videos testify to the dystopia. Modi appears to be condoning and promoting conflict and violence against minorities. When asked whether he apologized for the genocide of the Muslims committed when he was the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi dismissed the question with a sneer: If you are driving and run over a dog you don’t stop, you drive on. Hearing his answer, I just wondered what the three emperors, who so strongly respected life as part of their Indian religious beliefs, would have made of the comment. The beautiful people of the beautiful land of Kashmir, a favorite of all three emperors, are now raped, tortured and murdered heartlessly. The young are blinded by the military, and the media says they hate us because Pakistan has misled them. Everybody claims Kashmir, yet, nobody cares enough to stop the violence. There is no solution in sight as the world seems not to care for either justice or human suffering.
After the Second World War when India gained independence, it was the envy of the world. India had outstanding world-class leaders and an idea of itself as a democratic, inclusive and secular society. Even neighboring Pakistan, prone to martial law, respected the democracy of India. India is now giving up something that was uniquely Indian — its vision of non-violence — to become a bully terrorizing the minorities and its smaller neighbors. Even the great Mahatma Gandhi with his ideas of interfaith harmony is openly sidelined. His assassin, Godse, once reviled, is now hailed as a national hero and temples in his honor are built; and with cruel irony, the title once reserved for Gandhi, that of the Mahatma, the great soul, is applied to his killer.
As someone committed to interfaith understanding and building bridges of peace between the two neighbors, I remain baffled and distressed to see India so casually throwing away its greatest identifying feature, one inspired by the very Indian religion of Jainism, that of Gandhian non-violence. Modi and his loyal media have been recklessly priming the country for nuclear war and putting Pakistan on alert, thus preparing the scenario for a nuclear exchange. The danger of all this to India itself and the world at large is ignored. Any nuclear exchange will be the ultimate act of self-destruction. The big lesson Modi can learn from the three emperors is that you can crush the opposition and minorities through your security forces and taxes, but if you want your country to truly prosper, you must win their hearts and minds which can only happen when you embrace all your citizens as part of the greater whole. If awoke in Modi’s India, the three emperors would ask, what has happened to our beloved homeland? Yes, they would say, Modi may have reached out to Mars, but we reached out to the hearts of our beloved people.
–Akbar Ahmed is an academic, author, poet, playwright, filmmaker and former diplomat. He currently holds the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies and is Professor of International Relations at the American University in Washington, D.C