Why Yogi is wrong about the Mughals, writes Karan Thapar
“How can our heroes be Mughals?”, asked chief minister Yogi Adityanath last week. To make his meaning clear, he added, “anything which smacks of subservient mentality” is not acceptable to his government. Today, I’d like to answer him.
First, however, I want to ask him a few questions myself. What gives a chief minister the right to question who our heroes are? He may have the authority to govern us but not to determine our values and shape our ideals. It’s arrogance on his part to presume to tell us who to look up to and which rulers of our past to consider great.
Although I don’t know Yogi, I’ll go one step further. I suspect his question reveals either prejudice or ignorance, possibly both. If I’m right, this not only is unfortunate and unbecoming in a chief minister, but compounds his arrogance.
And so to my answer. The greatest of our rulers is the Mughal emperor Akbar or, to use his full name, Abu’l Fath Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar. I know many consider the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, who ruled 18 centuries earlier, Akbar’s equal or, possibly, heroically superior but I disagree. Akbar was not responsible for 100,000 deaths at Kalinga.
Now, let me tell Yogi a little about Akbar. As Ira Mukhoty, his latest and, arguably, best biographer has written, in the 16th century, his was “the greatest empire on earth”. With an annual income estimated at 100 million pounds, he was “by far the richest ruler in the world”. But it’s not his wealth or the size of his kingdom which makes him great. It’s his amazing personality.
For a start, Akbar’s ecumenism was unique for his time. He believed “all religions are either equally true or equally illusory”. Mukhoty says he prayed to the sun, whispered mantras, worshipped fire and kept fasts. His young son Murad was “entrusted to the Jesuits for an education”, taught the sign of the cross and to take the names of Jesus and Mary at the beginning of lessons. Akbar’s Hindu wives were not required to convert. They enjoyed “complete freedom to exercise their own religion”. He abolished the jiziya, “prohibited the slaughter of cows and the eating of their flesh” and was a vegetarian on weekends.
Mukhoty’s account reveals an incredible individual, far greater than the pomp and circumstance that inevitably surrounded him. He “often wore a dhoti” and appeared in the “diwan-e-aam with a tilak on the forehead and a rakhi on the wrist, tied by a Brahmin, as a blessing”. The décor of the palace he built in Fatehpur Sikri reflects the same open-hearted liberalism.
There were “frescoes painted of Christ, Mary and the Christian saints in the private chambers”. In 1582, he had the Mahabharata translated from Sanskrit to Persian. In later years, he commissioned translations of the Ramayana, Rajatarangini and the story of Nala and Damyanti.
This becomes even more remarkable when you discover Akbar was “effectively unschooled and practically illiterate”. In fact, Mukhoty believes he may have “suffered from attention-deficit disorder”. Some historians have even claimed he was dyslexic.
Let me now ask Yogi another question: How can such a man not be one of our heroes? Is it because he was a Muslim that we cavil? Or because his grandfather conquered India? Is this what you were implying when you said regarding Mughals as heroes reflects “the mentality of slavery”?
I wonder if he realises such logic could encourage the people of Odisha to curse Ashoka. Or India’s Buddhists to consider Pushyamitra Shunga villanous for persecuting their ancestors?
I know Yogi spoke as a politician, not a man of the cloth. Yet, he’s a revered priest of the faith we share.
Do these views represent Hindu thinking? Do they add lustre to our faith? Do they make Indians feel taller? Or more patriotic?
I doubt if Yogi will accept he’s made a terrible mistake. I have no doubt he has.