By Akbar Ahmed
May 14, 2019
About five centuries ago, India was the centre 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 per cent (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 Patliputra 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 armour-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 banning 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 Jahangir, 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 inner most 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 life time. 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 adapted 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 Pashtun 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 stabilised 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.