Few men who read history in school remember Dara Shikoh, the philosopher-prince of Mughal India. He is but a fleeting figure even if an enlightened one. The spotlight is well and truly on Aurangzeb, terse, taciturn, untamed. In a world looking for convenient, even if inaccurate, summations, Dara is reduced by our historians to being a favourite son of Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb, a fratricidal ruler who did not hesitate to put to the sword his own. That almost all kings in the years of yore did the same matters little. That Dara had a life before the fatal battle of Samugarh with Aurangzeb, that he had a life quite removed from that of any of his brothers is never pointed out. For most, Aurangzeb is a convenient villain, Dara the easy but fallible hero.
However, today as our nation faces the prospect of being ruled by revisionist politicians — ironically, they seem to be getting mixed up with their history lessons too — it is important to take some time out, and realise what we lost when Dara lost, and what we can gain if we imbibe his spirit. With such a thought, I picked up Gopal Gandhi’s Dara Shukoh: A Play . It was released some time ago and I had all but left it on the shelf with the likes of Dilip Hiro’s Baburnamah for company.
However, the events unfolding in the run-up to the general elections made me go back to it. Dara is relevant, even necessary today. The book instantly set in motion a series of conjectures: what if the heterodox Dara and not the more orthodox Aurangzeb had won the battle of brothers? If mid-17th Century India had thrown up a different victor, would the nation have been partitioned? Didn’t medieval India throw up a man who was wedded to pluralism of thought and faith much before the founding fathers of our Constitution made it a benchmark for future generations? And would Hindus and Muslims have lived here, as Sir Syed Ahmed Khan said, like the two eyes of the nation? Imagine if a Sufi had outlasted a warrior! Imagine.
The questions shall never be answered. But revisit Dara we must. Understand what he stood for, preach many of his things, and we might just end up with a nation that takes pride in its pluralist culture, a society where Hindus read both the Vedas and the Quran, the Muslims appreciate that the concept of one universal God precedes their arrival here; appreciation rather than mere tolerance of each other’s culture being the hallmark. Follow this, and the need to combat the challenge thrown up by communal elements disappears. Who can argue with a man who drinks from the common nectar of Sufis and bhakti saints?
And Gopal Gandhi, with an enviable and apt lineage for such a project, goes about demolishing many prejudices, exposing many lies. He chooses to spell him Shukoh, explaining beautifully that ‘Shikoh’ in Persian means ‘terror’ while ‘Shukoh’ stands for ‘glory’. Gandhi’s Dara is not a tragic figure; rather he is a man whose time is now. Gandhi chooses not to dwell much on a failed general — a poet is doomed to be a failure on a battlefield anyway. He stays focussed on the undercurrents of the thoughts of the man who translated the Upanishads into Persian — ideas that did not endear him to the radical elements on both sides of the religious divide. A play may not necessarily be an ideal substitute for a history textbook, but hey, did not Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai do more for introducing Mahatma Gandhi to the bubblegum brigade than any academic book or lecture?
The best help often comes from the source least expected. A play, a film, a book, a philosopher may yet show us the way. After all, amidst all the political mudslinging and a society being rapidly polarised, we could do worse than heed Dara’s words. Remember what he said when his followers screamed, “Shuja — his brother and fellow claimant to the throne — murdabad”? Dara replied, “Let us not wish death to any one/That is base;/All of us have God’s breath in us,/In any case./We live and have our being/ With his grace.”
In this age, Dara deserves attention.